I heard about the Necropolis on a British radio station
my friend Zell recommended to me. The narrator described a kind of strange Victorian death train that was built in response to the dangerous overcrowding of the cemeteries in London. Seems to be a theme running through so many of the places I’ve visited – Paris’s Catacombs, Haworth’s wells contaminated by the thousands of decaying bodies in their own graveyard. In London finding a plot to bury your loved one became so difficult that graves were dug up and reused, often leaving bones and body parts strewn over the ground.
Things became desperate when a cholera outbreak killed 15,000 people in the mid-1800s. But the proposal to build a cemetery in the countryside and link it by a train service was highly controversial. Train travel was still very new and considered to be dirty and unrefined, not appropriate to the dignity of a proper burial. Charles Dickens himself hated trains. Nevertheless, The London Necropolis Company was formed in 1852 and the first train rumbled down the track with its unusual cargo in November 1854. The people gradually came to accept The Necropolis, even jokingingly referring to it as “the stiff express.” But what I find most amusing is that even the coffin tickets for the train were divided into classes! Each “hearse” was split into 3 sections, and the most expensive section was more highly decorated, a greater degree of care taken with the coffin at both ends of its journey. Even stranger, while the dead were offered three classes of accommodation, their living relatives were afforded only two! It’s easy to think of this as completely ridiculous, but we all practice it in varying degrees when a loved one dies, don’t we? After all, what difference does it really make how nicely-dressed the dead are? Makes you think.
One great story from the time of The Necropolis involves none other than Mohandas Gandhi - later the Mahatma. He was 21 years old at the time and studying law at University College in London. He attended the funeral of Charles Bradlaugh, a controversial free-thinker who championed unfashionable causes like birth control, atheism and anti-imperialism, including Indian independence from Britain. After the funeral, while waiting for his return train, Gandhi overheard a noisy argument between an atheist and a clergyman who were deep in furious debate over the existence of God. There are also stories about golfers who would take advantage of the Necropolis’s lower train fares by dressing up as mourners to get a cheap ride to the golf club!
But it was the German Luftwaffe that finally killed The Necropolis. On April 16, 1941, thousands of bombs rained down on London, killing thousands of people and badly damaging the Westminster Bridge terminus where the Necropolis train was berthed. After the war, rebuilding it was deemed too expensive, and the advent of the motor hearse had made it obsolete. The Necropolis became Brookwood Cemetery.
I don’t know what I was expecting when I boarded the train at Waterloo to visit Brookwood. Something more than just a cemetery, I suppose. I got off the train at Brookwood and walked about half a mile through an extension of the cemetery that was developed in the 20th century. Out of this section and down a busy road to the original Necropolis gates. Walked through part of the sprawling cemetery and saw many older graves mixed with newer. There are lots of wooded areas. All very peaceful and deserted. I only saw 3 other people during my entire visit – a groundskeeper busily working, a man who marched past me as if he was in a hurry to meet someone – living or dead, I don’t know – and one of the monks from the St. Edward Brotherhood who now reside in the South Station Chapel. This chapel is one of only two of the original Necropolis chapels to have survived.
In the end, what once made this place special is now gone. You can still see bits of the tracks from the old railway line that used to run straight into the cemetery, but the demise of the train service has transformed The Necropolis into Brookwood - just a cemetery like any other.
You can view a short documentary by Adam Leats
on The Necropolis and learn more about it on Planet Slade
South Station Chapel, now
home to the St. Edward
Brotherhood - this is
where the Necropolis train used to pull in
Today I can truthfully say I’ve been from the heights of the moors on Penistone Crag all the way to the heart of London. I can’t believe as I sit here at the desk in my dorm room, that just a few hours ago I was standing atop a giant rock overlooking the vast empty moors of Haworth.
After doing some digging online, I found a walk to Ponden Kirk that someone had posted, complete with pictures. I painstakingly wrote down the directions, and this morning I set out again on my search for the kirk that Emily Bronte calls Penistone Crag in Wuthering Heights.
This time I take the bus into Stanbury to save time. Then I walk down a very steep hill to Ponden Mill. Completely deserted. I’m not sure if it’s still a working mill, but it doesn’t look like it. A little creepy, I have to say. But at the same time very beautiful. There’s a stream running alongside the mill, and horses grazing in a field on the other side. As I walk down the lane toward Ponden Reservoir, I can’t help thinking what a great walk this would be in the autumn, around Halloween.
I reach the reservoir and it’s here that my directions begin. Now I’ll find out if I’m going to get lost again, or if I’ll finally find Penistone Crag. The directions tell me to follow the reservoir around to the west and up a steep hill. And guess what? I’m on the very road I was on yesterday before I turned around and headed back up Pennine Way! Turns out I was going the right way after all.
I climb to the top of the hill and there before me is Ponden Hall – the house that was Emily’s inspiration for Thrushcross Grange in Wuthering Heights. Dark, brownish stone. Kind of foreboding but elegant at the same time. Emily, Charlotte, and Anne had friends here that they used to visit. And guess who they were? The Heatons! I have to wonder if our mason, Joseph Heaton, wasn’t related in some way. But there’s no mention of him in the history of Ponden Hall that I’ve been able to find.
I continue past Ponden Hall up the hill, pass some old farm cottages. At the top of the hill is a large, wonderful tree and Height Laithe Farm across the road. I take the road winding past the tree to the right, up to a metal gate that I have to climb over. Then along a cart path on which you can still see the ruts of the carts’ wheels in the old stones.
Ponden Mill heading toward Ponden Reservoir
Gates into Ponden Hall
Ponden Hall - Emily's inspiration for Thrushcross Grange
Lane leading away from
Ponden Hall up to
Height Laithe Farm
Cart path to the moors
Now a lonely signpost directs me to take a left directly onto the moors. I walk up a heather-choked trail along a crumbling wall until I’m as high as I can go. Here the wall ends. I turn and look down and let out a little gasp. The moors are spread out below me, with a breathtaking view of Ponden Reservoir and the town of Stanbury.
Now I’m well and truly on my way. I turn and walk deeper onto the moors. The path winds above a deep valley and before long I can hear the sounds of a stream. According to my directions, this is a clue that I’m getting closer to Ponden Kirk!
Trail up through the moors
Wall running along the trail
End of the wall at the top
of the moors
View of Ponden Reservoir from the top of the moors
Trail running above the valley toward Ponden Kirk
A view of the valley from
I have to look carefully for a safe place to cross the stream. Last thing I want to do is fall and break my leg out here in the middle of nowhere! I did pass a couple of hikers on my way up, but I haven’t seen them since I left the wall. I step across the stream and continue on along the trail. And there it is, just ahead of me – Emily’s Penistone Crag. I can’t believe it. I’m here! I found it!
I walk slowly toward the crag, take far too many photos. I want to capture this moment so I can look back later and remember. There are actually two stones jutting out from the hillside, but I think Emily’s must be the larger one further up. There’s a hollow at the base that you can crawl through, and a wonderful legend attached to it – according to tradition, if a maiden passes through the hollowed stone she will marry within a year. Guess I’ll stay single because there’s no way I’m scooting down to that hollow. It’s far too steep and a good drop down. But I walk onto the crag and sit. Look out over the valley. I can see Ponden Reservoir from here, just a silver sliver off in the distance.
Wow. I’m actually here. I pick a few wildflowers from the crag. Think about Emily’s story. I can feel
how this place suffused her writing. How it would begin to seep into my own if I lived here for very long. It’s hard to get up and walk away, but I have a train to catch. And it’s pretty lonely up here. Time to leave.
Back in Haworth, I have lunch at the Black Bull Inn. Charlotte’s brother Branwell
was a regular here. Sad story. He seems to have struggled all his life to find a sense of purpose and died an alcoholic and opium addict at just 31. I wonder if he didn’t feel shadowed by the success of his sisters.
I get the train from Haworth to Keighley
, a lovely old-fashioned steam train. Then back to London. In just a few days I’ll be heading back across the Atlantic to New York. And I think I can definitely say that Haworth is the part of my journey here that I’ll treasure the most.
The trail approaches the stream near Ponden Kirk - that lovely purple heather is everywhere!
Crossing the stream that runs toward Ponden Kirk
Getting close now - the
trail to Ponden Kirk
Up ahead - Ponden Kirk!
Ponden Kirk - Emily's Penistone Crag
Heading back to Haworth -
a view of Ponden Kirk
from across the valley
I set out today with the intention of hiking to Top Withins
on the moors to see the house that’s considered to have been the inspiration for Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights
. They sell all kinds of walking books in the visitor center in Haworth, but I thought I might get some free help at the Parsonage Museum, the old residence of the Brontes. I walk into the gift shop, tell the lady behind the counter what I want to do, and she says the magic words to me – “There’s another place that not many people go to that I can tell you about.” I LOVE discovering off-the-beaten path places, and this seems to be literally the thing. She says she prefers this walk because it’s more out of the way and takes you past the house that definitely was Emily’s inspiration for Thrushcross Grange, AND it takes you way out on the moors to Ponden Kirk – Emily’s Penistone Crag! Well. She doesn’t have to talk me into it. She pulls out a map, shows me how to get there, but I’m not at all comfortable with venturing out on my own without a written set of directions. I buy a little book that has several walks in it, including one to Ponden Clough, which takes you past Ponden Kirk.
So. Fortified with an egg salad sandwich and a bottle of water, I set off. First I have a one-mile walk into Stanbury. Tough. Up and down some very steep hills, and most of the way there is no sidewalk. The roads are very narrow, so I have to be careful of traffic. Finally I reach Back Lane in Stanbury, a little road that branches off the main road and runs up alongside the moors. So far, so good. I’m starting to get excited. Then the book directs me to take the Pennine Way. And it’s here that I start to get very lost.
I come upon a gate with a signpost – very inconspicuous, and the book says nothing about a gate or signpost – but after walking past it a couple of times, I finally notice that the signpost says in faded lettering “Pennine Way.” I go through the little gate and suddenly I’m on a narrow trail descending steeply through thick grass and trees! I come out at the bottom of the trail onto a wide road by Ponden Reservoir. The reservoir was built in the 1870s to supply water to the mills. I look at my directions again. Now I'm supposed to be looking for an access road that runs along the base of the moorland. But I'm clearly not by the moors. I walk all the way to the end of the road, up a steep hill, and back again. I go back to Pennine Way and walk all the way back up to the top of the trail – quite a hike. Retrace my steps. Maybe I missed something. Then I see it. The access road running by the moor! I walk along it, now looking for a kissing-gate that will lead me onto the edge of Stanbury Moor. But what's a kissing-gate? I see a signpost and a little trail leading onto the moor. Is that what I'm looking for? The problem is the book doesn’t give any kind of distances so you don't know how far you should expect to walk before hitting a landmark, and some of the landmarks are vague. A gate leading onto a path by a wall could describe a dozen or more places in Haworth!
I decide to take the trail and end up walking a long, long way. At this point I know I'm hopelessly lost, but I don't mind so much anymore. Kind of cool to be able to say "I got lost on the moors," isn't it? The wind is kicking up now, so I really feel like a character in a Bronte novel! And there are sheep everywhere, just wandering around loose. I can’t help stopping to snap pictures of them, like they’re some kind of woolly celebrities. Then over the hill, after not having seen another living soul since I set out, I spy two people approaching – an older couple who look like serious hikers. I wait for them to draw near and ask if they know where Ponden Kirk is. The man very kindly pulls out a map, and after looking for a few minutes, we find it. I’m not even close. Lol… They tell me they’ve just come from seeing Top Withins, which is just up the hill behind them. If I go that way the trail is clearly marked and will lead me straight back into Haworth past Bronte Falls.
Well, I guess this is what I was meant to see all along. I decide to give up on my Penistone Crag and settle for Wuthering Heights. Some guidebooks will tell you that Top Withins WAS Emily’s inspiration for the Earnshaw house, and some will tell you that it MAY have been. Seeing it, I can believe it was. It looks very plain - a bit mean. Just a stone shelter sitting forlornly in the middle of the moors. There are some guys working on it. Don’t know if anyone lives there now, or what’s being done to it, but I ask them if they know where Ponden Kirk is. They don’t know. And now I REALLY want to go there. If the people who work here don’t even know how to get to it, it must be a pretty rare place.
I hike away from Top Withins and follow the trail across the moors toward Bronte Falls. Wow. Now I feel truly awed and a little scared. Because I am in the middle of nowhere, and I am on my own. It’s windier up here, but the sun is out. Starting to get a bit boggy too, so I have to watch my step more. I slip a few times. Lots of rocks and uneven ground. And as far as the eye can see, nothing but moors. A large tree off in the distance, a few dots of sheep. As I get closer to the tree I can hear the falls. I’m actually glad I ended up here instead of Ponden Kirk. Wouldn’t have wanted to miss this. The falls are beautiful, pretty small, but I’m told they used to be more impressive. I cross the stream and set off back toward Haworth. By now I’m really tired and my legs are killing me. Ready to be sitting down somewhere with a cool drink. But I still have a long 2 mile walk ahead of me. As I approach Haworth I see one of those tourist buses you see going through Times Square all the time – the ones with the open tops so people can sightsee. I laugh to myself. It’s kind of funny to see one of those out here, especially after having walked probably 6 miles. How do you experience the moors from a bus?
I trudge back into the village, get a drink and go back to my room at The Apothecary House to rest for a bit, make plans for the rest of the day. I decide to go and see the Bronte Parsonage so I can have tomorrow to try for Penistone Crag again. Just cannot leave Haworth without at least attempting it!
There's a wonderful biography of Charlotte Bronte that was written by her good friend and fellow author Elizabeth Gaskell
. In Charlotte's letters she describes the parsonage as a very gloomy place, cold. But when I walk up to it I think, "This is beautiful. How could anyone not like living here?" What I'm forgetting is that Haworth looks nothing like it did in Charlotte's time. There was no running water, sewage in the streets, and the parsonage looked out on an overflowing cemetery that had no trees in it. The first room I enter is the dining room. And it’s here that Charlotte, Emily, and Anne would gather in the evenings to write and read their stories to each other, walking round and round the table. I cannot believe I’m in the very room where Wuthering Heights
was written! Where Jane Eyre
was born! Most of the furniture in the parsonage actually belonged to the Brontes, and the sofa in the dining room is where they believe Emily died. I wander through the rest of the house – Mr. Bronte’s study, the kitchen, then upstairs to the bedrooms. On the landing is the grandfather clock Mr. Bronte would wind every night before going to bed. I see what they call the Children’s Study – where Charlotte and her brother and sisters would play and write their “little books
.” They actually have one of these on display – the writing so tiny there’s a magnifying glass hovering over the book so you can read the words. I see Charlotte’s room, which she shared with her husband during their brief 9 months of marriage before she died. You can also see one of her gowns, her wedding bonnet, her writing desk. There’s a lot to look at and I feel overwhelmed, so I decide to stop trying to see it all, go back downstairs. Stand in the dining room once more. Try to feel what it must have been like. To really take in where I am.
I’m standing in the room where some of my favorite stories were written. Stories that made me want to become a writer.Tomorrow I'll spend my last few hours in Haworth searching for Emily's elusive Penistone Crag!
Will I find it? You'll just have to check back and see!
That's the Bronte Parsonage in the background, as seen from Mr. Bronte's Haworth Church
The moors heading toward Bronte Falls
Emily Bronte's inspiration
for Wuthering Heights -
this used to be a ruin, but
they're working on it now
Just arrived in Haworth, and wanted to get down my first impressions before I go out exploring. Took the train from Kings Cross in London to Leeds, then switched to the Northern Line into Keighley. As we drew closer to Keighley the land became more and more hilly. Took a taxi from Keighley into the tiny village of Haworth, where Charlotte Bronte lived with her sisters Emily and Anne. Now there are high hills all around – I guess what they call the moors. I don’t know what I was expecting, but they don’t look any different to me from hills or meadows. They’re dotted all over with houses, but I suspect back in Charlotte’s day they were much more open.
The driver drops me off at the bottom of Main Street, which is a very narrow cobbled lane. It looks like nearly all of the buildings here are made of this very dark stone. I walk up the steep lane past bed & breakfasts, tiny shops, an ice cream place, a little bookstore. At the top of the hill I reach my b&b – a place called The Apothecary Guest House. The owners are so warm and welcoming. Nic asks me where I’m from, and when I tell him Ohio, he asks, “Cleveland? Akron?” I can’t believe it! He’s had people here from Akron. Such a small, small world. He leads me up to my room and it turns out I have a view of the Bronte Parsonage! I can’t wait any longer, knowing it’s right there outside my window. Have to go! More later…
Spent the day just walking around the village, got some ice cream – elderflower and chocolate, yum. They love elderflower in England. Seem to use it in a lot of things, especially drinks. This is the first time I’ve had it in ice cream, and it was delicious – just the faintest hint of a flowery flavor.
I decided to wait to see the Bronte’s place till I can go first thing in the morning. Turns out today was a bank holiday in England, so there were a lot of people around the village. I did visit Haworth Church, though, walked around the cemetery. Charlotte’s father Patrick was curate of the church, and their family tomb is located there, but you can’t see it. A plaque marks the spot under which it’s located.
In the evening I went on a Ghost Walk tour. There were only 7 people in our party, so it was nice and intimate, like having our own private tour of the village. Our guide told us that 150 years ago Haworth (pronounced How-worth) was a very different place. 2,000 people lived here then, and all of them had to share just 69 privies and 3 wells. The streets were covered in straw and sewage. The death rate was very high, with 5 to 7 people dying per day. The cemetery was dangerously overcrowded and run-off from it tainted one of the wells, contributing to the high death rate. It was in these conditions that the Brontes came to Haworth. Our host showed us a street in the village where there was a row of what they call Weavers' Cottages. Before the industrial revolution, most people worked from home, as the weavers did. It was the duty of the curate’s wife to look after the villagers, but Patrick’s wife Maria died just two years after moving to Haworth, so Patrick’s daughters took up her duties. Emily looked after the weavers. There have been sightings of a ghost called “The Grey Lady” up and down this street, and many people believe her to be Emily.
Then we went to the cemetery and learned a bit more about the masons who cut the gravestones. The term “grave error” comes to us from the masons! Whenever they made a mistake chiseling a gravestone, they would simply chip deeper in to erase the mistake – hence the term “grave error!” Isn’t that great? Our guide walked us over to one particular gravestone, and it turned out to be one that I had been drawn to earlier and photographed. It’s the family plot of Joseph Heaton, who was himself a mason. He and his wife had several children, but none of them lived past the age of two. All of them were buried in one plot, and in his spare time Joseph tirelessly worked on their gravestone. He wanted to make it the most beautiful of all, and he certainly did. Our guide told us no grass will grow by this grave because of the people constantly walking over to see it. There were flowers on the grave, too. There are still Heatons living in Haworth today who visit the cemetery and pay their respects.
Mr. Bronte himself lived to see his entire family die around him – his wife Maria, daughters Maria, Elizabeth, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne, and his son Branwell. But he suspected that the high death rate in Haworth might be due to the unsanitary conditions, and he was instrumental in bringing about improvements to the water supply.
Tomorrow I’m going to go for a long walk on the moors. There’s a 4½ mile hike that will take me past some places that were inspirations for Emily Bronte when she wrote Wuthering Heights!
My b&b is is that blue awning - Apothecary House.
The Black Bull Inn -
Charlotte's brother Branwell
was a regular here. You
can see the moors just beyond.
The Heaton Family plot
in Haworth Cemetery
It’s my last few days with my niece before I leave England, and she asks me if I want to go to Ely and see the Cathedral. It’s not far, only about half an hour from Mildenhall, and supposed to be very beautiful. “Sure, why not?” I say. But I was not prepared for the stunning beauty of this place. Truly, I think it’s more awesome even than Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s. There’s just something about it that immediately strikes you as soon as you enter. I think it may be that its design is simpler, cleaner and starker, so the beauty of its architecture – its soaring height – stands out even more. I don’t know. But the feeling it gives you is very powerful.
Ely Cathedral is one of the seven wonders of the medieval world, and it’s considered the finest example of Norman architecture anywhere. The story of Ely begins in Saxon times with Etheldreda, the daughter of a king of East Anglia. She remained a virgin through two marriages and left her second husband to become a nun in 672. A year later she founded a monastery on the site of the current Cathedral. Etheldreda died in 680 from a tumor on the neck. The legend goes that this was a divine punishment for her vanity in wearing necklaces in her younger days, but in reality it was the result of the plague that also killed several of her nuns. The word “tawdry” comes to us from Etheldreda’s time. At St Audrey's Fair necklaces of silk and lace were sold – often of very inferior quality – hence the derivation of the word “tawdry” from “St Audrey”! She became St. Etheldreda after her death and for centuries pilgrims traveled to her shrine on the site of the Cathedral.
As you enter Ely there’s a beautiful labyrinth in stonework on the floor. If you follow it you end up walking the same distance as the height of the huge Norman tower for which the Cathedral is most famous. Reminds me of Christopher Wren designing St. Paul’s to be the same height as the number of days in a year. The labyrinth is intended to remind us that life has many twists and turns.
There were so many interesting epitaphs, too. One marker made sure to point out that although the deceased claimed to be of the House of Stewart in Scotland, the falseness of the pedigree had been clearly proven and he was in fact descended from the Stywards, “keepers of the pig sties.” Another was very moving and humorous at the same time: “Near this place lies the body of Richard Elliston, a youth of such uncommon endowments, regular modesty, sweetness of temper, engaging behavior… all these were defeated by an unhappy death occurred by the kick of a horse. In the 13th year of his age.”
As Amanda, Scarlett, and I wandered around the Cathedral a service began, and the sound of singing filled the air. A choir moved toward us up the side aisle, and seeing them filled me with such awe. I felt incredibly blessed to have been able to hear their music in that beautiful place. It was the perfect benediction to our visit.
The ceiling of the beautiful Norman tower
Looking toward the nave
from the entrance of the
| Me and Scarlett in Ely Cathedral || Amanda, Scarlett, and me outside Ely Cathedral |
If there’s a mecca for me as a writer, it’s C.S. Lewis’s home in Oxford. I’ve always wanted to visit. To wander through the home of the man who wrote the most moving words I’ve ever read on faith, love, death, doubt – on life. No one else has ever been able to put into words for me how I feel about God, what it means to be Christian. Trying to describe faith to someone – WHY you believe what you believe – is like trying to describe the sound of a shadow, or what laughter looks like. Impossible. And yet Mr. Lewis has done just that. His writing on grief helped me through the loss of my mother. His writings on faith continue to inspire me on my journey closer to God. And even more than his Narnia tales, I love his science fiction trilogy
– Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Soooo good. Like Narnia for grown-ups.
Lewis’s home is called The Kilns because it’s on the site of an old brick-making place. What’s wonderful about it is that it is NOT a museum. You can’t just go there on any day and see it. You have to make an appointment, and they keep the parties very small. When I arrive, there are only 15 people in ours. The house now functions as a residence for students and artists, so they only show it once a week or so. Our guide is Amanda, a student in residence, and she starts the tour in the garden by giving us a brief history of Lewis’s life.
Then we step inside the house. I just can’t tell you how incredible it feels to be moving among the same spaces as the person who penned so many of my favorite words – surreal, moving, and comforting all at the same time. Like being wrapped in a big warm blanket. One of the lovely things about the tour is that Amanda shares personal stories with us about Lewis and his life in the house. When Lewis and his brother had the house to themselves, before his wife Joy moved in, it became a real bachelor pad. Both of them used to smoke but there were no ashtrays in the house. They instructed guests to just tap out their ashes onto the rug and grind them in with their heels. Lewis claimed it kept the moths away. Or the story about Lewis’s old cat Tom. Once Tom had lost all his teeth, Lewis’s housemaid suggested they have him put down. Instead, Lewis instructed her to go to the market every other day and buy a fresh fish, mash it up and give it to Tom. Lewis told her Tom had taken care of them all his life by keeping the house free of mice. Now it was their turn to take care of him. “He’s a pensioner, now.” Lewis said.
After seeing the house, I walk down a wooded path to what’s now the Lewis Nature Reserve. There’s a pond where he used to swim every day, and a bench on which he used to sit with his friend and fellow author J.R.R. Tolkien. Many people don't know that it was partly through his conversations with Tolkien that Lewis became Christian.
Then I catch a bus into Oxford’s city center. Walk around the most ancient university town in the English-speaking world. See the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest in Europe – beautiful. See the spot on Broad Street where Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, and Nicholas Ridley were burnt at the stake for refusing to renounce their Protestant beliefs. But it’s when I leave Broad Street that I see something so strange. After wandering among so many ancient buildings, I turn the corner and suddenly I'm in the midst of a thoroughly modern shopping center. There’s a KFC, Burger King, Clark’s shoes, some clothing stores, and even more fast food chains. Weird. Proof that time marches on, and nowadays all roads eventually do lead to a McDonald’s. Even in Oxford.
The Kilns - that top door is Lewis's bedroom
Lewis's living room
His bench by the pond, where he sat with Tolkien
Brasenose Lane, Brasenose College - Michael Palin went to school here!
The Radcliffe Camera (a library) - St. Mary's in the background
Church of St. Mary the
Virgin, where the
Oxford Martyrs were
tried and sentenced to
Dissolving Ravioli. Frozen Rose. Gorgonzola Globe. Ice Vinaigrette.
A few months ago I came across a documentary on Netflix called El Bulli.
I started watching it and soon found myself engrossed, but in a kind of “this is utterly bizarre but I can’t stop watching” way. One of the chefs in the program was preparing something called kaki, which I later looked up and discovered is a Japanese persimmon. He cooked it in every possible way – baked, dried, jellied, and juiced. Not only that, he would photograph each outcome and then take notes, meticulously documenting every step. His fellow chefs would hunker down around him, look at the kaki, taste it, look at each other, debate the flavor, talk about the texture – ideas for preparing it in other ways. And as I was watching all of this, I kept wondering, “What are these guys doing, and WHY?” El Bulli
was the most experimental and controversial restaurant in the world. They received up to 1,000,000 reservation requests a year, but only 8,000 people could get a table there. And its chef Ferran Adrià has been acclaimed “the best cook on the planet” by none other than Joel Robuchon, himself considered to be the best chef in the world. When Chef Adrià took over El Bulli
his goal was not to put a new spin on classic recipes. Oh no. He wanted to invent a new way of cooking altogether. To "provoke, surprise, and delight the diner” by engaging ALL of their senses – sight, sound, smell and touch -
as well as taste. In his view, the ideal customer would come to elBulli not just to eat, but to have an experience
. In order to achieve this goal, the restaurant closed down for 6 months each year so that the chefs could experiment and invent new dishes for the menu. And their creations were so novel that new cooking equipment had to be invented to prepare them! The ways in which the dishes would be served was worked out with as much care and attention as the dishes themselves.
Needless to say, all this invention and acclaim has also created controversy. Some have argued that elBulli’s concept is pretentious. Watching the documentary, it did strike me how very technical their creative process is. Even the way they eat, the motions of getting the food from the plate to the mouth – even this seemed to be worked out to precision. Not very romantic or appetizing. But I have to say, I respect and admire anyone willing to go out on a limb to create something completely new. I’ve always been fascinated by the process of creating food that is not only delicious, but beautiful to look at – like edible works of art. And seeing elBulli’s completed dishes, watching the diners experience them, was exciting.
So when I learned that Somerset House in London was having an exhibit on elBulli, I had to go. Really cool. The exhibit is as creative and fresh as Chef Adrià’s food. In one section they have a table laid out with a white cloth and the image of a man’s hands and arms projected onto the table top, eating a meal as it’s served to him course by course. You can sit at the table and pretend you’re the diner! El Bulli
the restaurant is now closed. It will reopen as the El Bulli Foundation – a kind of food lab for experimentation and training. They’ve also started what’s called Bullipedia
, an online library of all of the gastronomic knowledge they’ve acquired over the years. Eventually you’ll be able to go online and choose any one of their hundreds and hundreds of dishes, see how it was made, and experiment with the recipe yourself.
Check out some of El Bulli’s distinctive dishes
. Or read about one diner’s firsthand experience
. Controversial they may be, but they are also certainly unique. And as far as I can tell, you don't forge new ground without digging a little dirt.
| An edible Bulli made for the restaurant's closing day || The bulli was made with meringue, the flowers with sugarpaste |
I can say two equally true things about my experience this morning – I enjoyed it, and I never want to do it again.
At one point, standing pressed up to the railing with dozens and dozens of others crowded around me – all of us staring through the bars at a big empty courtyard – I thought, “This is utterly ridiculous.”
I learned from my last attempt to see the Changing of the Guard, and this time I arrived early. It was 8:30am on a Sunday morning and when I crossed the street from Hyde Park onto the palace grounds, I saw that today I would have my pick of places at the gate. I chose a spot near but not right next to the big central gates. Sat on the little ledge and took out my book, ate my breakfast. Enjoyed a leisurely hour reading, eating, taking the occasional picture – watching the guards on duty in their sentry boxes, wondering what kind of lives they lead when they “clock out” at the end of their work shifts. At about 9:30 more people started to trickle in and by 10am the place was packed. As the time for the changing drew near I noticed the people themselves changing from politely giving each other space - apologizing when they bumped into each other – to treating each other as objects obstructing their view. And I noticed my own patience beginning to wear very thin, indeed. It’s very uncomfortable to be packed in with that many people for an hour and a half. There’s nothing like a spectacle to make people suddenly transform into sardines! But I was committed to seeing my mission through to its end.
At 11:15 the blessed sound of a marching band approached. No horse guard this time – I guess they don’t participate in every ceremony. The band led the regiments of guards into the courtyard and the ceremony began. I noticed that there were different-colored plumes on the sides of the guards' hats and wondered what that meant. Here’s what I discovered! The hats are actually called bearskins and they’re 18 inches tall. They’re made of real bearskin from Canadian brown bears and weigh 1.5 pounds! Poor guys – both the bears and the boys. The hats were first worn by British soldiers in 1815 following the defeat of Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo. Napoleon’s French grenadiers wore bearskins to appear taller and more intimidating, and Britain adopted the towering hats as a symbol of its victory. The different plumes represent the different branches of the guard: Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots, Irish, and Welsh.
The ceremony lasted about an hour – mostly songs played by the band. I think I heard the theme songs from STAR TREK and STAR WARS too! Very strange. And ironically, the ultimate purpose of the entire ceremony – the actual changing of the guard – happened in such an offhand way that I nearly missed it! I was watching the band play and happened to look over to the side of the courtyard. It was then that I noticed a small group of guards standing in front of one of the sentries at his box. Some kind of a small ritual seemed to be going on. Then the sentry on duty traded places with one of the guards. The changing was complete. But the band played on. The very thing we all came to see seems to be the least important part of the ceremony – strange.
I snapped far too many photos of the palace and then headed off in search of something to eat. On my way out of the park I noticed a section of fence covered in political posters – all of them extremely inflammatory and blatantly anti-Thatcher. I’ve always been curious what the British people think of Thatcher since I’ve read such differing views of her (and the movie with Meryl was pretty sympathetic, I think). My curiosity was satisfied when I met the man responsible for this display. I had just snapped a photo of one of the posters when Ray introduced himself by stepping up next to me and saying, “You know you can be arrested for doing something like that.” At first I thought he was upset that I was photographing his stuff, but it turned out to be just a conversation starter. :) Ray told me he’s an anarchist and he made it clear that an anarchist is NOT synonymous with a communist. Seems most of us Americans harbor that misconception. When I asked him what he thought of Thatcher, he explained very “delicately” that if you were one of the working class, all you really wanted to do was rip her face off and eat it. Wow. I chatted with Ray for about 20 minutes, felt incredibly ignorant at times when he proved he knows more about my own government than I do, but he also confessed that he doesn’t know enough about his either. Ray says this is not due to lack of information, but rather lack of free access to it. That surprised me. Is there a propaganda machine at work in Britain? I welcome views from other Brits on this.
I also learned more about Guy Fawkes Day
from Ray. I’ve read a bit about it, but could never figure out if it’s a celebration or some kind of an anti-celebration. Some things I’ve read describe it as a remembrance of Britain’s crushing of Fawkes’ attempted terrorism. Again, Ray said it depends on your perspective. The working class celebrates Guy, but the government views the day in exactly the opposite way. I’ve never heard of a country proclaiming a holiday especially designed to denigrate someone before! So strange. And today supporters of Julian Assange
don Guy Fawkes masks and gather outside the Ecuadorian Embassy where he’s been given diplomatic immunity from the British government. Only half a mile from where Ray and I stood chatting.
My conversation with Ray made me think again of Pomp & Circumstance, of the ceremony I’d just witnessed at Buckingham Palace. Differing views on government. Is it wrong to express pride in our country even when our country is so imperfect? I don’t think so. So long as we do not do so blindly. So long as we act as responsible citizens and stay involved in what our government is doing – protest when we believe it is doing wrong, support our leaders when we believe they are doing right. It’s when it becomes un-pc to criticize unjust war because to do so might also criticize the soldiers who fight that pomp & circumstance becomes dangerous – even idolatrous. And I fear that’s where the U.S. is right now.
The most important thing about citizenship can be boiled down to one word – information. It’s not enough to get out and vote. We must stay informed about what our leaders are doing, what bills are being presented. These bills become laws, and then they affect all of us. If you're American, you can keep tabs on Congress and the bills up for vote there by checking the House Floor site
. And write to your congressperson and senator – tell them how you want them to vote. Look up your reps’ contact info here
. Let them know you’re watching them. Let them know how you want them to represent you! This information is freely available to us. It’s one of the reasons we fought for our independence. We should appreciate and take advantage of it.
In the meantime, if you want a fix of pomp & circumstance for yourself, you can watch a video of The Changing of the Guard here
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The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace