Friday, August 1, 2008

Trains, Planes, Cars---Most of Us are Back in the USA!

The last three days have been a whirlwind of activity that included lots of cleaning and packing! Our last official day of the program was Wednesday,when we spent some time in class sorting out things like author studies and final projects (yes, we do have assignments interspersed with all of those field trips!!), then there was time to say our good byes to Alnwick and all of its many treasures. Wednesday evening found us gathered on the second level of Lilburns for a final dinner. Guests included Philip, Wade, Aaron, Glynn and Sue. It was an evening of excellent food prepared by chef Rod and good conversation with friends.

Bright and early on Thursday, beds were stripped and suitcases crammed with last minute items. Four of our group remained for more UK travel but they were up to see us off. We were gathered at the Barbican Gate by 6:45 am for the trip to Newcastle International Airport. Only a couple of moments of panic: for some unknown reason our coach could not trigger the electronic gate at the airport so we couldn't enter the parking lot for a few minutes and then, at the check in desk, Merton was told that we could only check one bag each and the rest would have to be paid for!! Needless to say, that wasn't acceptable or accurate, but it took a few minutes and a couple of phone calls to clear up. Our flight to Amsterdam and then our to flight to Minneapolis were uneventful. A bit of bumpiness over the UK and then we settled in; not even any crying babies or screaming toddlers this time. We actually arrived about 40 minutes early in Minnapolis. Customs was a breeze--apparently the drug sniffing beagle is not sensitive to chocolate!

The experiences have bonded us as a group--we are forever the 16 of the Summer 2008 British Children's Literature and Photography program. We have hundreds of memories, many of which can be shared, but others which are difficult to put into words and pictures--they just had to be experienced.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Moody Mists

We woke to a heavy fog and mist mixture this morning. It didn't bode well for our coastal plans, but we forged ahead. As the coach took us towards the North Sea coast, the mist got thicker and thicker. When we stepped out of the coach in the tiny fishing village of Craster, we couldn't see our planned destination of Dunstanburgh Castle, some 1.25 miles ahead--as a matter of fact, we could hardly see 50 feet ahead of us. It was a misty and fog shrouded walk--we didn't actually see the Castle ruins until we opened the gate onto the last bit of walkway leading into the ruins. The mist gave everything a moody quality, and it gave an opportunity to take some photographs that would not have been possible under sunny conditions. We did find that it was a great day for slugs and snails, which I will spare you a picture of.

The next stop was supposed to be a boat trip out to Longstone Island to see the lighthouse that Grace Darling and her family were tending when Grace and her father made their famous rescue of passengers from the shipwrecked Forfarshire in September, 1838. The weather was so bad that we chose not to do the boat trip. It would have been most uncomfortable. No one seemed too upset about spending some time in the tourist village of Seahouses instead.

The last stop of the day was Bamburgh where we toured the Grace Darling Museum (very well done). We also made a stop at the St. Aidan's Church and the graveyard there. Grace Darling is buried there as well as her family. The congregation of St. Aidan's raised money for an elaborate memorial and gravestone for Grace so that the grave site could be spotted from the North Sea. Since many of us have read the historical fiction book Grace by Jill Paton Walsh it was a treat to see the site of many of the actual events. Now, if we had only been able to go out to that lighthouse... oh well, something to look forward to in 2010!

Because this is northern England, by the time we got back to Alnwick around 3:30 pm, the sun was shining bright and it was very pleasant. In honor of the clear evening, Merton and I took a walk in Hulne Park after dinner. We walked to a very large tree a mile or so in. Our daughters always called the "Broccoli Tree" during their stints in Alnwick with us.

Tomorrow is our last day at the Castle and as one of the students said tonight "I'm starting to feel sort of melancholy." It's hard to explain, but Northumberland is such a special place with so much history and beautiful scenery that it makes it difficult to leave.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Wild Cattle Rule!

We had a bit of a rocky start this morning. The person whom we thought was organizing our visit to Chillingham Castle and the Wild Cattle thought the field trip was tomorrow not today, so after a phone call to set that straight, we spent about 20 minutes waiting for him in front of Alnwick Castle when he was actually waiting for us in front of Chillingham Castle. And then there was the packed lunches--absent again, just like the packed breakfasts of last week. In due time we found our lost organizer and the lunches were delivered to us later in the day, so all was well.

The Wild White Cattle of Chillingham were amazing. Richard, the warden who guided us to where the cattle were resting, gave us an excellent account of the history of the wild cattle. They are most likely descended from the auroch, which has been extinct since 1627. The cattle are totally wild; they have never touched by a human, and in fact, if they were to be touched, then would not be taken back into the herd, but killed by it. There are 80 of the cattle in Chillingham Park, and another 20 in a herd in Scotland. They were divided up so that in the event of disease, there would be one herd remaining. The lowest number the herd has even fallen to is 17 in the very difficult winter of 1947. The herd is ruled by the alpha male, or the wild king. He typically is in power for about three years before another male wins the spot. Twelve calves have been born this year so far. The calves are snow white when they are born, the cows are cream colored, and the bulls are a dirty white, battle scarred and covered in mud and dung. All of the cattle have horns from about the age of 8 weeks on; the horns of the cows are lyre shaped and tilted slightly to the back of the head; the horns of the bulls point forward. Some people felt more than a little nervous as we stood about 150 feet from the main herd and seemed more than a little eager to close the pasture gate.

After descending from the pastures, we went to Chillingham Castle. Along with the white cattle, the castle was part of the study of the Eva Ibbotson book The Beasts of Clawstone Castle. The castle garden was quite nice; the inside of the castle, complete with various "dungeons" was eclectic and eccentric to say the least. The general feeling of the students seemed to be that the atmosphere of the Castle was captured completely in the book.

The last part of the trip was a journey into the Northumberland National Forest. We travelled through Wooler to the Harthope Valley, which was beautiful. A small stream wound down from the Cheviot Hills, which are covered in heather just about to break into full bloom. There is a slight tinge of purple over the hills which will increase over the next few weeks. We were all tired so no one ventured too far out on the public footpaths, but it was a great opportunity for a group photo.

To the North Sea coast tomorrow as we bring out field trips to a close. We hope for fine weather, but after three days of sunshine, we know our chances are lessening!

Friday, July 25, 2008

From the North Sea to a Hill Farm

Today started out misty and cool, with dark low hanging clouds, but as our coach got closer to the North Sea coast, the mist started to burn away and the sun appeared. What a difference 10 miles can make.

First stop was the village of Bamburgh where we explored Bamburgh Castle, walked the sand dunes, and some of us dipped our toes into the chilly North Sea. The outlook towards the North Sea and the Farne Islands was hazy but much better than we had anticipated. The Castle is privately owned, and it has holiday flats that can be rented. The Castle has served as the setting for movies such as a version of Macbeth and also a version of Beckett starring Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton. Look for these titles in the oldies section of the video store!

We were sharing a coach with the undergraduate program today, and we found that they aren't as prompt at following gathering times as we are. After a 20 minute delay in the appointed time, we pulled out of the coach park at Bamburgh and headed north to Holy Island.

Despite being called an island, Holy Island (also known as Lindisfarne Island) is connected to the mainland by a causeway. However, the causeway is completely covered by water during high tide, so there are only certain times each day that are "safe crossing times". For those who choose to ignore these times, there is a large wooden hut on stilts that can be reached by a ladder. If you are caught in the fast moving tides, you get the opportunity to spend some quality time in the hut as you watch your vehicle being submerged, or on a particularly strong tide, being swept away!

No such excitement for us however. Our crossing was uneventful. We had just two hours today to explore the entire island, which is not nearly enough time. Choices to see include the Lindisfarne Priory and Museum, the parish church and graveyard, the Castle, the walled garden, and the rocky shore. And of course, the island does have shops and pubs, plus private homes, holidays lets, and bed and breakfast accomodations. (There are less than 200 actual residents of the island, but in the summer especially there are many tourists during the safe crossing hours.) Merton and I chose to buy a fresh crab sandwich (crab caught by the island fishermen), then eat lunch on the rocks along the North Sea. We then took lots of pictures in the walled garden. By the time we walked back to the village, it was time to board the coach.

Our final stop of the day was Bellshilll Farm in Belford. Owner John Renner gave us an excellent tour of his farmyard and fields. He obviously loves his job as well as the land. He talked about conservation measures that he practices as he manages the crops, his herd of sheep, and his small herd of beef cattle. The views of the Cheviot Hills to the west and the North Sea to the east were spectacular. We walked in warm sunshine, light winds, and the scent of sweet clover, planted to attract and increase the bee population. I think that our group of "mature" students got a lot more from the tour than the undergraduates...or at least we had the most questions. To learn more about Bellshill, check out the website under the links section to the right.

Our time is starting to get short. It's hard to believe that this is the last weekend in Britain for most of us. Some students will stay in Alnwick this weekend, while others will travel to Edinburgh to see the sites of the city landscape. Merton and I plan to go to Newcastle tomorrow to spend the weekend with our friends who live there. No more posts until Monday night when we'll talk about dungeons and wild white cattle!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Author Visit!

This morning found us back in the classroom again after being on the road for a week. It was a big adjustment for all of us but we got the opportunity to get caught up on some of the literature and photography background that we were a bit behind on. Merton even found some student photographic assignments that had been eluding him for some time and was able to give some much needed excuse for not having perfect pictures now!

This afternoon we had the honor of hosting Rosalind Kerven, a Northumbrian author and storyteller. She spent the first part of the afternoon presenting folk tales gathered from Northumberland. We especially enjoyed "The Wedding Ghosts", set near Hadrian's Wall, since we had just been in that area yesterday. It was easy to visualize the ghostly images floating over the landscape. The second part of the presentation, Rosalind spoke about her newest book, a historical fiction work set in Viking times, called Grim Gruesome The Cursed Sword. It was enlightening for us to hear how the book evolved over the course of several years. It is the first of seven planned books in the Grim Gruesome series. The next one, The Queen's Poison, is due out in February, 2009. It will be set in Yorvik (ancient Viking York). The third book will be set in the Orkney Islands...and we'll just have to wait to find out the rest of the story. Rosalind very kindly signed books after her presentation. It was a fine afternoon indeed.

Tomorrow, we journey to one of my favorite places in all of the world, Holy Island. It's always my secret hope that we will not make the safe crossing time and have to stay over on the Island!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Home Again!!

After three days of travel in the Lake District, we arrived back at the Castle a little before 6:00 pm this evening. Although we had a wonderful time away, the buzz going around the coach as we drove up Narrowgate to the entrance of the Castle was "we're home."

The weather while we were away was very favorable. Sunny, clear and warm on Monday, and then partly cloudy and warm on Tuesday and Wednesday. This has been the wettest and coldest season on record for the Lake District so we won the weather lottery. On Monday, we visited Rydal Mount, where William Wordsworth spent many years of his life with his wife and family. We self toured the house and gardens. The gardens were splendid this year--much better than when we saw them two years ago. After the gardens, some people chose to ride the coach back to the village of Grasmere, and others chose to walk the three mile "Coffin Path" from the fells around Rydal to the village of Grasmere. The Coffin Path it just what it sounds like--in times past it was the route down which coffins (complete with bodies inside) were carried for burial in the village churchyard. There is at least one large rock left on the roadside near the village where the coffin bearers stopped to rest the coffin before continuing on.

Monday evening, we went the Centre for Storytelling to hear a local storyteller, Taffy Thomas. We started the session in the Storyteller's Garden, then moved indoors to the Listening Room, where we heard more stories and saw Taffy's "tale coat". We also enjoyed a cup of tea and a piece of the famous Grasmere gingerbread.

Our accomodations for the trip were the Glenthorne Guest House, which is a lovely and peaceful bed and breakfast run by Quakers. There were no televisions or radios in the rooms, just the sweet sound of sheep, cattle, and the wind blowing lightly. The silence surrounding the house is wonderful--something that we as Americans have way too little of in our lives.

Tuesday was Beatrix Potter Day, with a visit to Hill Top Farm at Near Sawry and the Beatrix Potter Gallery in nearby Hawkshead. There was lots of time for pictures and gift shopping at Hill Top--you'd never guess that the American dollar is so weak against the British pound--the gift shop would like us to visit often. There was also time for an optional walk in the area that several people took advantage of. After the Gallery in Hawkshead, there was time for even more shopping. I hope everyone remembers the weight limit on luggage still is in effect for the trip home--some of those bargains may turn into expensive purchases!!

Today we were fortunate to visit Wray Castle, which is not normally open to visitors. It is the property where Beatrix Potter and her family spent their first summer in the Lake District. We got to see five rooms in the house, plus the gardens which are being restored. From there, we traveled out of the Lake District heading for Hadrian's Wall. Our coach driver was kind enough to take us through Kirkstone Pass (1500 feet above sea level) so we got to some dramatic fell scenery. The pass is closed in the winter and it doesn't take a lot of imagination to understand why! We then traveled along Ulswater, the longest body of water in the Lake District. We arrived at Housesteads, which is the ruins of a Roman fort on Hadrian's Wall, about 3 pm. It was quite a hike up to the ruins, but everyone made it. After spending about an hour there, we made a final stop at Steel Riggs. Steel Riggs is one of the best spots to get an idea of what the Wall might actually have looked like in Roman times. A great spot for photographs.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

A Day of Rest and Good Food

Today I actually slept beyond 6:00 am for the first time on the trip. We had only two things on the agenda: The Treehouse for lunch and watching the film " Miss Potter" in preparation for the Lake District field trip.

Gaye made reservations for all of those interested in dining at The Treehouse which is a fanciful restaurant in Alnwick Garden. Ten of us signed up, and it was a delicious treat. Appetizers ranging from soup to goat cheese salad to sauteed mushrooms, entrees of roast pork and roast beef, and desserts so beautifully presented that we had to photograph them...cheesecake, meringues, creme brulee and blueberry peach pie. It was a taste treat coupled with good company and conversation.

Tonight we invited everyone to our upper Barbican flat to watch "Miss Potter". We provided the snacks for anyone brave enough to climb the Barbican stairs and most everyone took us up on our offer. I think that the students may have new respect for the climb that Merton and I make every time we leave or return to our flat.

Tomorrow we will be traveling to the Lake District to see in person much of the scenery that we watched on screen tonight. We are all excited to go, but a little afraid that perhaps we did not pack warm enough clothes. Plus the Lake District gets much more rain than Northumberland, and we've already experienced plenty of rain here, so who knows.

This may be the last post until Wednesday night because I don't know what the Internet access will be like once we leave the Castle. Think good thoughts for us as we travel.