Day 7: Time Out for Trains

That sound you hear is Europe’s largest train museum calling me, right here in York. I didn’t even try to resist.

I spent most of today there, and barely scratched the surface of the place. The world’s first actual train (1831). The royal carriages designed by Queen Victoria and each of her various royal descendants, including Queen Elizabeth—truly palaces on wheels. The loco with the largest wheel ever (diameter 8.5’). The fastest steam train ever (125 mph). Dozens of glorious beasts with parts now all shiny, each one with a million soot-covered stories.

Specialty stuff: a hospital train that ferried the wounded away from WWI battlefields. The last steam locomotive ever built. A working turntable (with a cool demonstration). A diesel locomotive with the steel side panels cut away, exposing its innards. Perhaps best of all, a walkway built beneath a steam engine, providing a view of the machinery I certainly had never had before.

A knowledgeable and generous docent named David showed me around, his stories bringing the exhibits to life. He explained how a steam loco re-watered while driving 50 miles per hour, deftly sucking up thousands of gallons of water from strategically placed troughs along the tracks. “A train man had to be really good to manage that,” he understated. David also talked at length about the working partnership between driver and fireman. “The drivers made more money,” he said, “But they said the firemen had more skills.”

There was a huge exhibit about the Flying Scotsman, the name of both a famous train and a famous route—London-to-Edinburgh in just a few luxurious hours. After leaving active service the locomotive was almost scrapped. Public outcry (and private money) saved it—and a succession of famous owners have been exhibiting it (and losing money doing so) ever since.

The place was, of course, filled with kids. And although I didn’t enjoy their continuing squealing, I was glad they were there. We need to spark every generation’s engagement in the romance of this extraordinary technology that transformed the 19th century, making the 20th possible.

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Day 6: Medieval Abbeys, Connected By a Steam Train

Fully rested (and fully windblown), I finally bid farewell to the little seaside town of Redcar and headed south along the coast to another little seaside town, Whitby. Except this town hosted a blockbuster attraction—Whitby Abbey.

Whitby Abbey started as a 7th-century Christian monastery that later became a Benedictine abbey. It overlooks the North Sea in North Yorkshire, which was a key area of the medieval kingdom of Northumbria (which kept changing hands over centuries of border wars).

As we crested a small hill the abbey suddenly appeared, floating between earth and sky. It is absolutely magnificent—enormous yet graceful. Although less than half of it remains, the site can’t really be called the abbey’s “ruins,” because it’s perfect exactly as is. The soaring height and broad size are plenty to take in.

Because it was built and modernized over several medieval centuries, the abbey combines several building styles. John helped me see the difference between Early Gothic and the subsequent Decorated Gothic—I do love those fancy windows. Like so much of “English” culture, Gothic design had first been used in France, and was imported into England in the late 1100s.

It’s esoteric but of lasting significance: In 664 the abbey hosted the Whitby Synod to reconcile local Celtic and Roman Christian practices. The Roman practices won out, including the date of Easter, which was then set for succeeding millennia.

Continuing south toward York, I stopped at Kirkham Priory. Unlike Whitby, the place was empty—in fact, a small wooden admission gate was locked (a full hour ahead of the posted closing time), and in the tradition of the self-sufficient Augustinians who had founded the place in 1122, we climbed over the fence and strolled around.

There were fewer buildings than at Whitby and they were smaller, but the place had a dignified beauty of its own. On the front of the gatehouse I saw the armorials of the main 12th-century benefactors sculpted onto the stone.

Because of its isolation, sheer walls, and nearby lakes, the site was used to test the vehicles and tactics used in D-Day—supervised by Winston Churchill himself. And apparently John has been hired multiple times to reenact Churchill responding to that challenge.

Both Whitby Abbey and Kirkham Priory suffered similar fates when King Henry VIII dissolved England’s monasteries and seized all church land and property in the 1530s. The Catholic Church had owned about 1/3 of the country’s land, including its income (wool, wine, etc.), so seizing its property across the country created an enormous windfall for Henry.

And how had I travelled between Whitby and Kirkham? By steam train, a two-hour trip via the North York Moors historical railroad. I saw some lovely scenery inaccessible to cars, spoke at length to the on-board docent, heard the most beautiful 19th-century sounds of steam and rail, and got my share of soot on hair, clothes and hands. It was a slightly jarring interlude between medieval sites, but it was a calm two hours to reflect and relax.

Two revolutionary technologies: gothic architecture and the steam engine. Still very, very easy to admire each.

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Days 4 & 5: By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea…

I’m taking a break from the 15th century at a little seaside resort in 1962.

I had this brilliant idea of spending two days by the sea—walking for miles along a placid beach, sitting outside reading, after-dinner strolling through a quaint town. Well, note to self: the North Sea isn’t the Caribbean, ducky.

I’m in a gently shabby hotel in the gently shabby town of Redcar. My gently shabby room does face the sea—I’m close enough to see the sandpipers poking along just 25 feet away. But how windy is it here? Less than a mile away, clear as those birds, I can also see the silent sentinels of the offshore Teesside Wind Farm. Completed in 2013, the 27 vertical turbines are part of group of 40 such farms ringing the sea off the coasts of Germany, Denmark, Norway, and the UK.

Not exactly bikini countries, right?

I sat in the window of my room, reading, writing, and enjoying a cuppa. At high tide, the sea was rambunctious, white waves crashing against the wall of the two-lane road separating the water from my humble inn. Low tide, however, was a revelation: a quarter-mile of fine clean sand, lightly rippled by wind, leading right up to the water, now absolutely still.

So I bundled up and took a winter walk. It was, well, quite fresh out there. And glorious. Even when it (sigh) sprinkled a bit. And definitely when the sun came out, oblivious to the raindrops, which soon stopped. It was easy to imagine the burly Norsemen arriving here, wide-eyed, a thousand years ago—“Ay, Eric, pretty mild here!”
~ ~ ~
I couldn’t survive on just the traditional British food in the hotel, so I ventured into the little town a few times. It was mostly pubs, a few restaurants, and a bit of halfhearted commerce (including a barber shop called “The Barber Shop”). I ventured into a couple of small cafes over my two days here with mixed results. As is often true, the Asian place (here it was Thai, in Edinburgh, Indian) was best.

The tiny town was Central Casting come alive—twenty-something couples shepherding their three blonde children; elderly people calling each other Mum and Dad sipping pints at all hours; people smoking and speaking in accents so strong I could only understand half of what I overheard.

Across the two days, I asked locals their view of Brexit. Sometimes I didn’t even have to ask; as a foreigner I was sometimes enlightened on sight. The consensus here is that Brexit’s essential, and that Boris is heaven-sent. Why? To end ‘free movement’—“We can’t have the whole world just coming in here and living off Benefits,” as a taxi driver put it.

I didn’t argue, I just wanted to hear unedited opinions. So, let’s restrict the immigration of people like the Poles? “Nah, they’re OK, they work,” said a café manager. It was Middle Eastern people he was resentful about. And what about the predicted shortages of produce and medicine? “I don’t worry about all that international trade stuff,” he said.

Redcar is part of Britain’s depressed northern belt that hasn’t gotten much of the advantages of the 21st century. These people voted for the Brexit vision of turning the clock back a century to when Britain was powerful, self-sufficient, and everyone’s neighbor was, well, British. The world will never be that way again, of course.

If you haven’t been following Brexit, you might want to start. In just eight weeks Great Britain will start to collapse of a self-inflicted wound. Towns like Redcar will take it right back to 1962—years of agonizing slide into irrelevance, unemployment, bad food, and wondering where it all went wrong.

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Day 3: South Into England: The Wars Begin

Historian John Sadler arrived in the morning to start our drive south. He spoke more or less non-stop the entire day, which was at times tiring. But he is so breathtakingly knowledgeable, I really couldn’t get enough of either his narrative or cynical and dryly hilarious asides.

With the Firth of Forth (the bay on which Edinburgh sits) on our left, we headed east toward the North Sea—fully as rocky, wide and windy as advertised. The Vikings must have been incredibly tough to repeatedly cross this rough expanse 1200 years ago—and must have been ready for some serious plunder when they reached the shore.

Because these civil wars were spread out over much of north and central England, we aren’t doing this history trip in strict chronological order, The first battle was 300 miles south of here at St. Albans in 1455, where the Yorkists defeated King Henry VI, a Lancastrian. Five years later they actually captured the king, and a year after that, the Duke of York was crowned King Edward IV.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Today, Bamburgh Castle was our first goal:
prime real estate occupied by the Anglo-Saxons, destroyed by the Vikings, rebuilt by the Normans, royal reward for a Crusader, prison of Scottish King David. Then in 1464, it was the first castle in England to be defeated by artillery, after a nine-month siege by the Earl of Warwick, commander of the Yorkist forces. And that’s why we’re here.

The castle is lovely. The Crown awarded it into private hands about 1600, where it has stayed ever since. In 1894 industrialist William Armstrong (whose gun innovations had made our Civil War even bloodier) bought it, and his family completed the restoration begun earlier.

Maybe it’s been restored a bit too much. I yearned for a bit more medieval and less Victorian. The building’s stones were a little too clean, too straight, and too, well, gray. Or not gray enough. I strolled the Great Hall where Warwick had his triumphant banquets. I couldn’t quite hear his harsh laugh.

This just whetted my appetite for old gray stone, so we continued a few miles south to Warkworth Castle, inside a loop of River Coquet, less than a mile from the coast. It was the day’s highlight.

Built sometime after the Norman conquest of 1066, the castle changed hands often during three hundred years of border wars with Scotland and internal English strife. King Henry V (“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”) gave the castle to the powerful Percy family in 1416, who supported the Lancastrians. When the Yorkists won at St. Albans and Towton, Edward IV confiscated all the Percy property, including Warkworth. It went back and forth in the succeeding decades of warfare.

We had the place to ourselves on an overcast but mild day. The place hadn’t been rebuilt, but wasn’t falling apart, either. Interior stairways led to intact vaulted storerooms, kitchens, and other chambers. The late-medieval tower was safe enough to walk through, with magnificent views of the river and current town below. With its strategic views and source of water, this site had been perfectly selected.

The architecture was both familiar and exotic, combining French/Norman, Scottish, and later English elements. The king’s chapel was especially beautiful, even without the colorful tapestries, stained glass, and rugs that would have enswathed it. It felt both cozy and regal.

Castles were essentially walled towns. Soon it was time to leave Warkworth’s beautiful old stones and head to the seaside for a few days of rest.

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Day 2: Walking Tour of Edinburgh: Scotland Really Is A Separate Country

The place we now call Edinburgh has been continuously inhabited for 10,000 years. When the Romans arrived they found a thriving Celtic community. The area eventually passed to a fierce tribe of medieval Angles (as in Anglo-Saxon), who lost it to the Picts, who lost it to the Scots. It was chartered as a royal city some 800 years ago.

And it’s gorgeous.

I’ve explored the Old Town for two days, a charming tangle of medieval, Renaissance, Georgian, and Victorian lanes and buildings. Its architecture and culture have a subtle French influence, the result of centuries of cooperating with a common enemy, England.

Everywhere I go I see that Scotland is its own country, with its own language, customs, religion, and aspirations.  And its own history, with as colorful a cast as any country I’ve ever seen: national hero Robert the Bruce, who led the First War of Scottish Independence Against England in 1314. Mary, Queen of Scots, imprisoned by her half-sister Queen Elizabeth for 19 years. Mary’s son James, the Scottish king who also wore the crown of England. Oliver Cromwell, who occupied Edinburgh in 1650 to punish it for supporting the Restoration of the Stuarts.

And then the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution both apparently started right here in Edinburgh. Statues to David Hume, Adam Smith, Robert Burns, James Watt, and others dot the city. I also learned how the loss of supplies of raw cotton during the American Civil War forced Scotland to diversify, and then develop world-class industries building ships and locomotives.

I went to the Scottish National Museum, documenting century after century of warfare, coinage, diplomacy, and maritime commerce. Yes, they’re a nation. I ended the day with a drive through the New Town, a sophisticated urban center outside the ancient city walls. “It looks a bit like Dublin,” I told my guide. “Yes,” he nodded, “They were built at the very same time.”

I’m here only 48 hours and already love this place. Fortunately, the weather combines all the charm of Chicago and Seattle, so I’m safe from any impulses to emigrate.

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Day 1: Edinburgh, Jewel of Scotland

Scotland and England have had an uneasy relationship for a thousand years. And no place in Scotland resonates with this history more than Edinburgh–which is where I found myself on day 1 of my trip.

Windy, cloudy, warm, cold–I had typical Scottish weather in just my first hour here (It’s supposed to rain tomorrow, which will complete the deluxe weather package). But the buildings surrounding me more than made up for it. Even my hotel is part of the atmosphere. That’s my window in the turret, above the R in Radisson.

But wait, climb the Royal Mile up Castle Hill with me. I passed St. Giles Cathedral, centerpiece of the Scottish Reformation. Fiery theologian (read: serious troublemaker) John Knox was installed as minister here in 1559, and it’s now known as the Mother Church of World Presbyterianism. I passed it three times in one day, and each time the stones were a different color–once shimmering in the sun, once shivering in the wind, and once quietly watching  the sun set,  tourists scurrying off for tea or Glenlivet.

The climax of the walk uphill is the castle itself. I’m afraid words can’t do it justice. It’s massive, graceful, cleverly built atop a small plug of volcanic basalt, hardest rock on earth. like every ancient building it’s been repurposed, renovated, burned, and rebuilt over and over.

The ceiling of the Great Hall was built by some 600 years ago by marine architects–so of course it looks like an inverted ship’s hull. Tiny St. Margaret’s Chapel is the oldest building in the city (around 1124), honoring Scotland’s first saint.


The clock tower is stately, backing up to the sheer drop that made the castle site so perfect.

My favorite part of the castle was one in which no photos are allowed–the War Memorial honoring the tens of thousands of people who had died fighting in Scotland’s various wars. Looking around, I saw centuries of regimental colors–and loss, and grief–from around the globe. Gallipoli, Suez, Cuba, India, Falklands, America.

A quote from Thucidydes beautifully summarized the enormous death and profound respect surrounding me:

“The whole earth is the tomb of heroes; not only are they commemorated by columns and inscriptions in their own country, but in foreign lands there dwells also an unwritten memorial of them, graven not on stone but in the hearts of men.”

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Coming Up: The Wars of the Roses

The Wars of the Roses were a series of battles that took place across England between 1455-1485. Battling for the English crown, the civil war lasted through the reigns (and untimely deaths) of kings Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V, and Richard III (“A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!”).

Fought between the York (white rose) and Lancaster (red rose) families until there were no male heirs left, the winner was neither–it was Henry Tudor, who founded the dynasty that begat Henry VIII (of the 6 wives) and Queen Elizabeth I (of Shakespeare’s day).

I’ll start with three nights in Edinburgh, Scotland, and travel for two weeks through northern England visiting castles, touring battlefields, exploring the city of York and ending, ironically, at the tomb of Richard III–discovered when the locals in Leicester were excavating a site for a new parking lot.

My amazing guide will be military historian John Sadler, author, BBC consultant, and one of the world’s experts on medieval England.

I leave August 27. Do scroll up to my photo and sign up to get notified of my almost-daily posts and photos.


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