Monday, August 7, 2017

Showing off 'a small island' - Part I (we don't need no raincoats!)

In 1995, Bill Bryson published 'Notes from a Small Island', his reflections on the UK as he was about to return to his native US.  In this series of posts, I will do my part to wax lyrical about my adopted country of the UK, through the lens of family members who were making their first trip there.

"You never know what is in your closet until you look"
Of course, any successful holiday (read vacation for anyone outside Europe) relies on planning.  In this respect, my sister and her husband were remarkably flexible, given that their current motto is to 'relentlessly root out hurry'.  We talked about planes, the best beer to drink, trains, the best beer to drink, villages to visit, must-see museums, the best beer to drink, and of course, clothing.   In Texas, coats are not commonly worn, so in the days leading up to departure, our recommendation to bring raincoats was met with a 'Hmmm - do we have any?'  Several hours later, I was relieved to get the above picture and text - success!

Spousal Unit planned a wonderful routing for us through Minneapolis and Amsterdam.  I love the Amsterdam airport - immigration and customs are a breeze.  Before we knew it, we had coffee and had settled into our gate to wait for our quick flight over to Newcastle.  It was then that he pointed out where I was sitting.  Off to a good start!  Hopefully this would not be auspicious for our trip, which would include a lot of walking!

The next day, our two guests arrived at the Darlington train station, via the Virgin train service from Kings Cross in London, where they had spent almost a week exploring all that the metropolis has to offer.  (Which, by the way, did not include any weather requiring rain coats.)  We whisked them off to my in-laws with just enough time to enjoy Mom's tea and to re-pack for our morning departure to the Yorkshire Dales.

Over 25 years ago, Spousal Unit introduced me to the public footpath system in the UK, and I know I fell in love with both at the same time - they are inextricably connected in my heart.  Thus it brings me great delight to share this national treasure with others. 

River Swale
How to describe the footpaths?  They are not just trails; they are an up-close, intimate look at the country.  Farms with all their best (sheep and their lambs) and their worst (just try tip-toeing through pastures frequented by a large herd of sheep).  Hand-built dry stone walls that have withstood the tests of 3 centuries stretch before you for miles.  Stiles that are often works of art in their own right.  And, our family favorite - 'random acts of castling' - the fact that you can be walking a path and all of a sudden come upon the ruin of a castle or an abbey.  So it was that we chose our first walk with my sister and her husband - to feature a 'random' abbey, Easby Abbey near Richmond.

Cottage garden with Easby Abbey in background
A small portion of the ruined abbey
I suppose I should thank Henry VIII.  "From 1536 to 1540 King Henry moved to dissolve the monasteries across England, as an act of religious defiance to the papacy in Rome, and in order to raise money from the sale of expensive materials that could be salvaged from the roofs and windows of the structures. Today, the English countryside is littered with some 800 sites, remnants of the religious metamorphosis England underwent at the hands of one of the most ruthless of Tudor monarchs. For visitors to England, a trip to one of these offers a unique window into the history of the country, and like the medieval castles that punctuate the countryside in most counties, the Monastery ruins are mysteriously ethereal in their ability to bring the past to life." (

For all we know, absent dear Henry, the monasteries might have disappeared altogether without the protection that comes from a designation as a historic site.  Or access might be restricted at the site of a functioning abbey.  Instead, today we get to admire nature's way of reclaiming a site, even in the smallest of nooks and crannies.

I suspect that footpaths also appeal to the voyeur in all of us - the opportunity to peer over a garden wall, especially the high ones, to see what is being protected from our view.  Quite quickly, my sister and her husband recognized that flower gardens, big and small, are a rampant past-time.  No matter how small the space, even if only a doorway, it possesses flowers.

A critical aspect of walking in the UK (and it may be the only reason some people engage) is the stop you make mid-way (or at the end, or BOTH, as the case may be) at a tea/coffee shop or the pub.  (I am still not sure if pub owners strategically placed their establishments at the end of paths, or if the path makers were always headed to the pub!)

View of Richmond Castle with River Swale below
Bridge over River Swale
On this particular day, our round-trip walk led us to the tea shop within the re-modeled rail station.  (This renovation is a superb example of using a historic space in a creative way that honors its roots - you can learn a lot about the history of rail in Richmond while enjoying an ice cream or a variety of baked goods, not to mention purchasing adult beverages from the distillery, watching a movie or perusing the art gallery.) For our part, we tucked into scones and tea (and bought some beer and cider, if truth must out!)

Waterfall on River Swale
Although it was not a long walk, it felt good to replace the hiking boots with sandals, which gave my sister and her husband another cultural experience: the sight of people changing their shoes in a public car park (read parking lot) is as ubiquitous as tea.

But there was not a raindrop to be found anywhere - tell me again why we brought the rain coats?

Linking  to Our World Tuesday
Our World Tuesday Graphic


  1. Because it doesn't rain in July/August? Just like in western Oregon (honestly, I think the coastal misty climate is a lot the same.). I wish we'd had time to walk some of those paths ...a walk with a goal of food and drink is exactly my husbands idea of the only reason to hike! (I don't complain of course, although I will also walk just for the sake of moving). Beautiful green serene pictures and I loved learning about the route you flew.

  2. Wonderful! I've never been to the UK (just some stopovers at Heathrow during travels to and from the States) -- but follow a few bloggers who post about these magnificent pathways around the country. So beautiful!

  3. What a wonderful trip! Do you follow Susan Branch? She wrote about England and all those lovely trails. :) Kit

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  5. Love this! Ready to join you on your next adventure - literarily (if that's a word) if not literally!

  6. Wonderful! We visited the UK for the first time last summer and I fell in love with the countryside. We wandered through the ruins of Hailes Abbey near Winchcombe, and then I read about Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's henchman, sitting on his horse on a hill above the abbey, on Christmas Eve, watching the destruction ordered take place. Shivery!
    Do you have more adventures to share?

  7. Glad to come here today since I missed this post in August. Foot paths are a wonderful treasure in the UK!
    That's my kind of walk, one that includes a pub or tea room!


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