Chapter 24 Autumn
"Hello," Alan greeted me on my return from Norway, "Have a good time?"
"Lovely, thanks, except for Jacqueline's accident."
"Yes, you mentioned that in your card. How is she now?"
"All the scabs are off and it's quite clean, but still very red. It is fading every day, so I hope it will finally disappear altogether."
"Take many photos?"
"A few. Well, enough for a record. I'm not an addict, and couldn't afford too many. We always buy postcards of particularly good things. That way we can be sure of what we are getting, and the pictures are mostly much better. They can wait for perfect weather."
"Would you like to borrow my projector to see your slides?"
"Oh that would be great. Thanks so much. I've got another film to come at the end of the week."
"I'll bring it as soon as you get your film. Where are you off to next?"
I told myself firmly not to read anything more than friendship into his offer.
"The Interchange Teachers have organized a weekend at the Peak District which should be very good. There's apparently a stately old home, converted into a study centre. Different groups can hire the place, and they arrange activities according to the type of group, walks and tours in the day, and films and discussions in the evening."
On the way to the Peak District on the Friday evening, I stopped for some chocolate and to go to the toilet, soon after we joined the motorway.
"I'll get petrol at the next service station. Then it should be enough to reach Castleton."
The fuel gauge had given up the ghost during our Continental tour, and unfortunately I miscalculated the amount of petrol the van used at a fast speed on the motorway. We ran out of petrol. The breakdown service supplies only one gallon, which was not enough to get me to the next service area, so I had to call the AA again for another gallon.
At one am we arrived at the little town, where everyone was respectably asleep, and no one was available to tell me where the study centre was. So I crawled into bed with the children who had been asleep for hours, having found a convenient layby next to a public toilet. We departed in the morning before anyone came to explain that this was illegal.
The other teachers and their families stayed in the comfortable house. We joined them for meals in the dining room and for all other activities for a most reasonable cost. I parked in the grounds under a mighty red-gold tree. The drive was lined with autumn trees, and as we set out after breakfast to walk to the town, the children of the party all shuffled through the fallen leaves, kicked them to hear the crisp rustle, threw them around in delight.
Geologically the area is noteworthy, mainly for a stone called Blue John, but we were limited to what we could pick up. David in particular found the stones of immense interest.
"Look at these," he cried, taking samples out of the pockets of his parka.
"They are very interesting. I like the fossils mainly. I think you might as well leave them here so that others can see them. If everyone took some away, there will eventually be none left."
"There are thousands. I asked the ranger and he said I could take some home."
"I'm afraid not. We'd be paying excess luggage."
"Just these few."
"One of each type, and I'll buy that card we saw with samples of stones. When we get home I promise we can join a lapidary club, and learn what to look for."
We had gone by coach with the group to see the main points of interest. We walked for about five miles along a creek, and the ranger indicated the wild life, old copper mines and the natural flora. A long stretch was through glutinous mud, and although we had worn walking shoes, we were not prepared for the sloppiness of the track. We proceeded with a series of sucking noises and many spills among the children. I left one shoe in a particularly deep hole, and when I hopped back to retrieve it, found that it would never be the same again. I abandoned it in the nearest bin after I got back to the van and my other shoes. The loss of my walking shoes was not a major tragedy, as they were old and had seen better days. But it left me with my good white shoes and only one everyday pair, which I discarded just before we stepped onto the plane about two months later.
They had carried me many miles, through many museums, galleries, displays, monuments, and castles.
On our way back from the Peak District, we stopped firstly to see Arbor Low, Neolithic remains, similar to Stonehenge, but dismantled thousands of years ago. The stones lie in a circle in the middle of a farm and have been fenced to protect them from being desecrated by the cows.
Then we drove on to have tea with Ruth Pipe and spend a couple of hours relaxing before tackling the London traffic.
"Have a lovely weekend?" she asked as she bustled about getting our meal. "What did you think of the castle?"
"The castle was closed. It's funny to us, but such a lot of things are already closed. The countryside is really lovely with all the autumn trees though."
"Have you been to the Lake District yet?"
"No. But I've been told it's especially beautiful in autumn, so we plan to go for half term. Peter wants to go to Hadrian's wall, so I hope we can do both."
"I love the Wall. I've done a bit of digging there. I believe there's a new area being excavated. That would be wonderful for you to see, but I don't know if you could get permission. They have to be so careful of vandals."
"It amazed me this weekend how much was taken from the Peak District. Stones, fossils, copper, Blue John. I've collected some leaves for a display at school."
"People are just beginning to realize the need for conservation, before everything is devastated."
"We saw a film last night at the study centre, showing what has happened to many beauty spots as soon as good roads are put in. I think the ranger felt that most of these places should be preserved for those prepared to walk twenty miles to get there."
"When I was a girl there was not much interest in preserving sites, even Pompeii. The best things were taken to museums, and the rest was neglected. We are just waking up to how much we sacrifice in the name of progress and development."
"It's a very difficult problem. There are no easy answers."
"Will you come here for tea when you are going to the Wall?"
"I think not thanks, because it is such a long way. It's a shame we couldn't have seen it when we went to Scotland, instead of having to drive over the same road again. We'll get as far as we can on Friday night, follow the Wall and come down the west coast for a while, and back through Stratford-on-Avon."
The trip seemed doomed to failure as we set out to drive through London (I had given up trying to find a quick way round) got lost, and drove over Tower Bridge twice, travelled along the Motorway until half past ten in thick fog.
"I'm pulling off the road here," I said wearily, stretching my aching back. "It's too tedious driving in this. And dangerous. In the morning we'll see what the weather is like and we may go somewhere else."
In the morning it was no better. Should we go to Oxford? Would it be clear there?
"I want to go on," begged Peter. "It's probably the same everywhere."
As I had no way of knowing, I was persuaded to continue. The heavy fog followed us all the way to Newcastle where we arrived about three p.m. I suggested we were wasting a lot of money on the petrol we had used getting there. Through the fog we had fleeting glimpses of remnants of wall. At Housteads we got out but could see nought, so drove on.
"I think I might go back to Housteads, I can't see anywhere here where we could even pull off the road. At least there was a parking area there."
So we returned and spent the night in the deserted parking lot.
"This is a bit like our first trip, when there were no camping areas open," observed David.
The fog had lifted, but it had started to rain, when we looked out in the morning.
"Put on you rain coats and caps, and we'll see if there is anything here."
Well rugged up we tramped through the mud in pouring rain for one and a half hours. This was a Roman garrison, the roofs and the top sections of the walls have disappeared, but the rest stands gloomily in the desolate countryside. The Romans regarded it as a punishment to be sent to serve in this uninviting region, so far from civilization. A long section of the wall is almost intact, following obediently all the contours of the hilly area. After exploring the garrison, we walked along the wall for some distance, passing smaller watchtowers. At the top of a hill, we stood and saw the wall going down into a steep dip, and rising sharply and continuing over the next hill.
"This is far enough," I decided.
"My shoes are full of mud," said Jacqueline.
"So are mine and I haven't got any others now, except my good white ones."
Back in the van, we removed all the wet and muddy clothes, and tried to find places to put them. Muddy socks went into a plastic bag, but other items had to be worn again, so they had to be dried. Shoes stood in a row near the van door, but slipped around with the motion of the van, and soon succeeded in making most of the floor space unfit for bare feet. A map dropped onto the floor and was unreadable. Up until now we had been extraordinarily lucky with the weather. Even on our long trip on the Continent, we had not had too much problem with mud. Damp clothes, which would not dry, and dirty clothes waiting for the next wash day, but not much mud. This was a new and not very exciting experience.
"Could we go to the museum in Newcastle?" asked Peter. "The book says there is a scale model of the wall. I'd like to see it."
When we got there we found it shut (this was becoming a habit) so we drove back along the line of the wall, this time able to see a bit more of the wall and the ditch. Near Chesters we were held up by an accident, and arrived just as they were closing (had they seen us coming and didn't like our muddy shoes?) so we proceeded west and turned south to the Lake District. Again we could find no camping area and camped beside the road at Ullswater. During the night it rained heavily.
We woke to a miracle. A bright blue sky, clear blue water, a tiny river beside the van, and trees of every shade of gold and red and rust, all dripping and shining after the rain. Even twenty miles an hour seemed too fast. At every bend there was another tree which was so spectacular it had to be photographed. Every rise brought a view of little lakes and masses of brilliant colour.
It lured us on and on, up a steep steep pass with a grade of one-in-four, with a stone fence on either side and nowhere to turn or pass oncoming vehicles, and suddenly we were in different terrain, rocky and bare of trees.
"There's an all year camping ground in Colwyn Bay," said Peter.
It was hard to find, being right in the town, over an unpromising looking narrow railway bridge. It had once been a farm, and geese shared the grounds with us and the other lone van, also a VW.
Our neighbours, we discovered in the morning, were three Australian girls, who were going to Ireland. They had only recently arrived from Australia, and as yet did not know about 'the season'. Like us they would learn. I told them of our experiences, and they pondered this and said,
"We'll see something of Ireland, while things are comparatively quiet there. Then we're going to work in London for a while and save up for our big trip to the Continent."
I hoped they would feel as satisfied with their planned experiences as we did with ours.
We were now heading into the bulge that is Wales, and once again in undulating wooded country. In a particularly pleasant area, we came to the village of Betws Y Coed, which is a handful of shops and houses around a picturesque waterfall. The water flowed in a leisurely manner over the series of cascades and under the stone bridge. It was surrounded by trees, each in its own pool of autumn colour, quiet and restful, but ever-moving, living, growing. A little girl was hanging some pieces of bacon on the lower branches for the birds. A man was sweeping the rustling leaves into a heap beside the road. He struck a match. The smoke curled lazily up to the bright sky. Many of the sedate houses took guests so that they could share their treasure with a favoured few. Almost every house would give a view of some part of the gem. A tingle ran down my spine. The beauty hurt.
Around Snowdon the scenery changed again, grand and desolate, and signs of quarrying on a large scale, now apparently abandoned. Sago snow was falling as we climbed into the mountains. Visibility was poor.
As we pulled up in the parking area under the enormous walls of Carnarvon Castle, an elderly gentleman walked over to the van. He greeted us in Welsh, although he knew by the 'Australia' on the van that we would not understand. I smiled and said 'How are you?' and he told me that he often brought his wife in her wheelchair to sit in the sun beside the castle, sheltered from the wind, while he observed the activities of the visitors. He regretted that English was now compulsory in the schools, that few spoke the real Welsh. He taught the children to say 'Hello' in his melodious tongue. The expression has long since escaped me. He watched us fortify ourselves with cheese and nuts for our inspection of the castle, and was amazed at all the cubbyholes and conveniences we carried with us.
"I would have liked to do this sort of thing when I was young. At that time we never went further than Cardiff, and that only once or twice."
He was torn between his admiration for my intrepid journeys, especially when I said I loved Wales, and his nostalgia for the things we could never see or understand. He was overjoyed to hear me call my son 'David'.
We put on our jackets and coats and sallied forth, waving to the little white haired lady in the wheelchair, who was dwarfed by the massive walls whose protection she sought. They were gone by the time we had explored the towers and rooms, looked at the displays, played Welsh songs on a coin-in-slot machine, bought some postcards, and a set of table mats depicting Welsh castles. One of these was Carnarvon, which stands outwardly intact, one of the most imposing in Britain. Another was Harlech, which became our next objective. Apparently the road goes over private property, because a woman at a gate extracted a fee before we could proceed over the unmade and unworthy road. This brought us to the forbidding and gloomy edifice just as it closed. The castle, built in 1285, now in ruins, stands on a cliff overlooking the marshes fringing the bay.
From here we followed the grim coastline for a while then turned inland to the wooded mountains, rippling streams, golden trees, glacial lakes. Every bend gave great views of the valley we were following. I drove on in the growing darkness, with the full moon rising before us, to light the afternoon valley. After dark I stopped at an old mill, converted into the office for a camping area.
"We are closed, really. The season has finished," they explained. "But you had better come in and park down there. The ladies' toilets are still usable, but we are working on the gents."
Anne Hathaway's house
Back into England, and to Stratford-on-Avon. First to Anne Hathaway's house which has been well preserved and stands in its old world garden. The structure comprises timber framing, stone and brick, the thatched roof carved to reveal the little upper storey windows.
"The pictures always have a beautiful garden. It's a shame it looks so bare now, everything pruned back, the hedges stripped."
"I didn't know how thick the thatch was," said Jacqueline, still a fan of thatched cottages.
"Come here," called David, who was in the stone kitchen, examining the oven in the wall. "The door of the oven is wooden. You would think it would catch on fire."
"I suppose they had to replace it from time to time," I observed. "See the bellows. They used these to get the fire going in the fire-place next to the oven."
The house was well furnished with genuine articles, furniture, china, bedding (it looked hard) and even a bed warming pan.
Proceeding in toward the town we discovered that the whole town centre is a memorial. It is an ancient market town, and still boasts shops selling 'game' which hangs in the open doorways, with feathered or furred feet and heads still attached. There are many historic buildings, still intact, but those associated with Shakespeare and his family remain the greatest. Soon after his death, Stratford was recognized as a 'town most remarkable for the birth of William Shakespeare' and pilgrims began to make their way to see the house where he was born, his grave and monument. Now many people connected rather remotely with the poet are remembered because their homes are part of the trust. The town's Grammar school does not belong to the trust, but occupies a place of honour in the town. Unlike the homes, it has no garden, but stands on the path, vertically striped, alternately white plaster and black timber. The upper storey overhangs the path, and baskets of geraniums swing over the pedestrians. Even in Autumn the town was colourful with flowers.
A number of the rooms in Shakespeare's birthplace, were given to a display of books, manuscripts, pictures and objects illustrative of his life, time and works. It is a crime not to spend at least a week there, to visit all those houses, wander in the parks and gardens, to sample the venison, to attend a production in the theatre, to feed the swans on the Avon.
But which of our experiences would we have been prepared to sacrifice?