Thursday, December 10, 2015
Our friends Helen and Gus Wilson had just visited two towns a week or so prior to our road trip, and we decided to follow in their tracks based on their experiences. So, off we drove to Chester, a walled city dating from the Roman occupation 2,000 years ago. The cathedral is a must-see with some of the finest medieval carvings in Europe decorating the quire. Originally founded as a Benedictine Abbey in 1092, the church contains a mix of Norman and Gothic styles during its evolution to the present day cathedral.
As we’ve discovered, these cathedrals are living museums still used today by congregations. Blending old with new, Chester’s cathedral was decorated for Christmas including Dicken’s tale of Scrooge.
It was a bit odd to walk amidst large, storybook characters while touring a medieval building (actually, it was in the Chapter House Room where the monks use to meet and where the monastery’s founder, first Norman Earl of Chester and William the Conqueror’s nephew, Hugh Lupus, was buried) ; yet, I really appreciate keeping architectural and historical gems alive through modern-day use.
In the nave Max spotted the Chester Imp or devil hidden amidst the upper windows.Legend has it a priest saw the devil in that spot, so they carved one and placed it there, on the north side – the side where, according to medieval belief, bad things happen (odd, but so is seeing ‘the devil’).
We wandered into a room used for a Consistory, or church, court. As one of the oldest surviving examples of an ecclesiastical courtroom, Chester’s dates from 1541 with the judge or Chancellor sitting in the raised canopied seat flanked by two clerks. The guy in the raised corner chair was the ‘Apparitor’ who was in charge of logistics during the trials, ones covering slander, theft, even witchcraft. If these walls could talk…
Reading that the quire stalls hinged-seats had misericords, small wooden rests you can prop up on when standing, were of exceptional craftsmanship, we wanted to check them out.
It was here we ran into a guide who generously answered our questions and explained that the carvings were so intricate the woodcarvers even detailed the hollow interiors of some of the knobs.
And, these carvings were created using fairly imprecise tools compared to today’s equipment.
He invited us to listen in on a short explanation he gave to several school children, one where he pointed out the elephant carving. He pointed to the animal’s feet, which were actually horses’ hooves because the carvers had never seen an elephant before and had to come up with their own design.
The guide then took us to a monument for a 17th-century bishop partly financed by an American bishop’s donations in 1863.
Evidently the Bishop of Maryland thought very highly of this John Pearson, a Bishop of Chester (1672-86) who was instrumental in creating the first prayer/service book of the Church of England in 1662. Frankly, what interested me the most was seeing a mustache without any beard on this medieval face. I later read that in England facial hair (for men) ebbed and flowed with, no surprise, favored styles depending upon the royal’s facial coifing (James I and both Charles I and II in the 1600s displayed luxurious mustaches).
Running into the guide was a gift, and it’s not the first time–nor the last–that we’ve left a cathedral in awe of the knowledge shared by such warm hosts.
With that we exited the cathedral climbing up to the city wall ringing the back of it (it doesn’t look it but there’s a ten or so foot drop-off on one side of this walkway).
Here we also glimpsed the Eastgate Clock commemorating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
Eager to arrive at our next destination we headed back to the car via The Rows, one of Britain’s oldest shopping arcades built between 1200 and 1350. With Christmas just around the corner we have found many places packed with holiday shoppers, which made parking difficult but lent a spirited festive air to our travels.
On the road again we drove directly to Conwy, another beautiful site, this one on the coast. In addition to being one of the finest surviving medieval fortifications in Britain, Conwy is also close to the home of a cruiser friend we met in the Azores during our 2014 crossing; and, we had arranged to meet Martin and his wife Hilary at their former cruising club.
But first, we stopped to unpack at our lodgings, the local youth hostel, which, I must admit wasn’t my first choice based on previous hostel stays during our earlier travels. Yet, this one was stellar. It was also practically emptied, which made the common areas easy to use and very quiet.
Once we were oriented with the kind help of the guy at the reception desk we walked downhill, under one of the city gates and to the waterfront where we supped at a local pub before entering the North Wales Cruising Club. There we were greeted by one of the members while the club quickly filled with others who were creating goody bags for their upcoming volunteer activity of playing Santa who comes by water, not by air.
Soon Martin and Hilary arrived and we caught up over drinks in the warmth of this cruising club before heading back to our bunks.
Friday, December 11
After breakfasting in the hostel dining room we left for the fortress castle eager to stretch our legs and learn more about this UNESCO World Heritage City.
With over three-quarters of a mile long wall interspersed with 22 towers, this town represents England’s fear of Welsh insurrection under the rule of King Edward I (1239-1307) or ‘Long Shanks’ (6’2”). This English king was the heir of Henry III and Eleanor of Province. To secure control of Wales Edward built and refurbished a chain of 17 castles by 1283.
The fortress that juts into the River Conwy sits on rocks which provide a natural deterrent to invaders. It’s a beautiful setting and remarkable considering these structures have remained standing since medieval times.
What amazed Max and me even more is that this structure was built in seven years! Can’t you just imagine the hustle and bustle associated with creating the foundation, ferrying the stones, then actually building block by block such a giant infrastructure? And, this was done without the benefit of modern cranes, bulldozers and CAD design…
As we climbed the inner passageways and stairs to towers and walls
and gazed out from the castle
mounted placards explained the historical signficance of the rooms and time Edward I spent cloistered in his stone fortress. What clearly came through was the Welsh sentiment towards their English ruler and fellow conquerors.
For instance, check out the last line in this excerpt under the heading “Hostile takeover stimulated building boom”:
And, if that didn’t give you a clue to how they really felt, try this one:
We felt we could have been speaking with someone from those times due to the commentary provided on these 21st century displays. Obviously, King Edward I couldn’t die soon enough; and, from their view I can understand why.
As in Scotland, signs and communications are bilingual to ensure this country’s language lives. Of course, we couldn’t understand a syllable much less a whole word when confronted with it. But, it’s a lovely language the few times we heard it spoken around us.
Some historical footnotes resulting from Edward’s rule:
In 1301 he named his son Prince of Wales, an appellation continuing to this day.
He was responsible for the hanging, drawing and quartering of the Scottish hero, William Wallace in 1305.
And, Edward died on route to fight the next Scottish rebel, Robert the Bruce, in 1307.
Again, history’s fascinating connectivity captured us in its spell as we both recalled our Scottish travels earlier this year.
Strolling down to the waterfront we passed a 14th-century timbered stone dwelling (Aberyconwy House)
and the smallest house in Great Britain.
We couldn’t help noticing some paper stuck to the hulls of overturned dinghies and, after reading them, were thankful JUANONA’s dinghy was carefully stowed aboard.
Due to the time of year another site, Plas Mawr, a 16th-century Elizabethan house, was closed for the season, so we decided to walk part of the town walls. Built in only four years (1283-1287), they ran for nearly a mile. The English lived inside, the Welsh, outside. Great way to engender comaraderie.
Encircling the entire town, the walls make for a great viewing platform, both of the river and of the town itself.
With more daylight time ahead of us we jumped back in our car to toddle around the countryside for an hour, noticing flooded areas due to earlier storms that devastated the Lake District just north of here.
Back at our hostel we prepared our dinner in the well-outfitted communal kitchen. Another fairly early night in our bunks
with tomorrow’s itinerary involving an Englishman and his home. I cannot tell what the dickens his name is. :)