Kay and I both love England. In my case, the country figures in some of my earliest memories. Both my mother and my aunt Sigrid were fans of the British Royals. On a fishing trip to Canada with my father, circa 1953, I recall seeing objects – plates, toffee and biscuit tins, etc. – commemorating the young Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. Because of a correspondence he had with a British friend, an uncle of mine would regularly receive copies of Punch, The Illustrated London News and Country Life. These he would circulate among the relatives. I remember being fascinated by the real estate ads in Country Life, which listed large residential properties with multiple bed and bathrooms, libraries, conservatories, and other rooms curiously listed as “offices”. It was later that I learned these to be rooms such as the kitchen, pantry, laundry, etc. devoted to household work. For a boy living in a five-room bungalow on Chicago’s South Side, England was a world away.
Recently, Kay and I had the opportunity to visit some English country houses, not the ones of my early fascination, but ones far grander and more historic.
The first leg of our trip took us to Yorkshire where we stayed in the home of friends Sharon and Ismail Inci and Dilara, their four-year-old bombshell of a daughter. I had wanted to visit Yorkshire ever since, as a young teenager, I read Wuthering Heights. I wanted to see the wild moor where the young Heathcliff roamed with Cathy. In the company of our friends we did walk on the moor near the Brontë parsonage at Haworth; however, our visit occurred on a bright, sunny day quite unlike the weather of the novel.
Nor would I characterize the moor as “wild” except for the gorse, grasses, and flowers that grow in abundance. Of course, it probably looked different in 1801, at least in Emily’s imagination. Unlike the rugged, natural beauty of Anatolian Turkey, the English countryside looks as though it has been sculpted by artists, which, in some cases, is true.
You may have heard of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the most famous of Britain’s great landscape architects. Brown lived in the 18th century and countered an older tradition of formal gardens and landscaping with his natural-landscape theories. We had the opportunity to see some of Brown’s work later in our trip when we traveled to West Sussex and visited beautiful Petworth Park.
It was in Yorkshire, though, that we were fortunate to tour one of Britain’s grandest country houses. It’s misleading to call Castle Howard a mere ‘house’ since by every measure it is palatial. In fact, it is a baroque masterpiece designed by John Vanbrugh. By the close of the 17th century Vanbrugh had accomplished many things and was best known as a playwright; what he had never done, however, was build a house. This didn’t seem to deter his noble patron, Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle, who was convinced that Vanbrugh knew just the kind of house, he, the Earl, needed to elevate himself and pursue his political ambitions.
So Castle Howard along with its park of 10,000 acres was begun in 1699 near the City of York and wouldn’t be entirely finished until the middle of the 19th century. Many of you probably know Castle Howard by appearance since it serves as Brideshead, the ancestral seat of the fictional Marchmain family, ‘revisited’ by Charles Ryder in Evelyn Waugh’s novel in both the Granada Television adaptation and the recent feature film version.
Like others of Britain’s distinguished country houses, Castle Howard is still the property of the scions of its original builder; and their ancestral treasures – paintings, sculptures, china and furniture – are on magnificent display.
The same excursion that took us and our friends to Castle Howard brought us at the end of the day to the picturesque harbor town of Whitby on Yorkshire’s northeast coast.
Besides its ruined abbey Whitby’s cultural claim to fame is as the setting of Dracula’s fictional arrival in England. Bram Stoker happened to be staying in Whitby when he wrote parts of his famous novel. As I’m sure we’ll all remember, the vampire enters Whitby by ship, having traveled from his native Transylvania encased in a box of ‘earth.’ Beyond its Dracula connection, Whitby is an excellent place to buy fudge, refrigerator magnets (a British staple), and eat fish and chips.
Kay and I couldn’t leave Yorkshire without spending a day in the medieval center of the city of York, whose greatest monument, York Minster, is one of Europe’s most admired Gothic cathedrals. Even by cathedral standards, York Minster is enormous and exceptionally beautiful.
Another York attraction is the Hall of the Merchant Adventurers. It’s a great timber-framed building dating from the mid-14th century. Situated on the River Ouse, York was in former times a busy port, and the Merchant Adventurers were a guild that for centuries controlled all commercial traffic in and out of the city. Such a deal and such a name!
Sharon and her family live in Belle Isle, a residential community on the periphery of the city of Leeds. Central Leeds was a pleasant surprise. Where we had perhaps been expecting the faded relics of a former mining and industrial center, one whose glory days were sadly past, we found instead a collection of carefully restored and maintained Victorian buildings of more than casual interest.
Some of these contain arcades, sky-lit passages with brightly painted cast iron structures decorated with elaborate motifs – dragons, fruit clusters, etc. Many of the smart shops lining these arcades are the counterparts of those in any of the world’s tony shopping districts. There are painted panels as well, depicting scenes and symbols reflective of the city’s industrial past.
Leeds has other attractions, too. Adjacent to the Henry Moore Institute, the City Art Gallery has a superb collection of 19th and 20th century British art. Then there are the pubs, at least a couple of which have existed for well over a century. Their authentic interiors from another age are the kind that ersatz modern imitators can only dream of reproducing.
Finally, I have to mention a touring production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that Sharon, as a special treat, took all of us to see. Some of you may remember that last year I acted the part of Jacob in a community-theater production of this musical here in Istanbul. Sharon had been my director. Given our experience with it, we know the play very well, so to see it performed by a very strong professional troupe in Leeds’ aptly named Grand Theatre was a special pleasure. Discussing its mise en scène afterwards, we agreed that the production was well staged with the exception of the Canaan Days number that we felt Sharon had done more imaginatively in Istanbul.
Often in our travels, themes emerge. You’ve noticed that in England our chosen destinations frequently have literary associations. We can hardly help it; in college we were both English Majors, and reading literature has held a life-long interest for us both.
After Yorkshire we headed south. I should explain that this was a driving trip, the first for me in the UK. Now since I’ve been a road warrior for fifty years, these days driving doesn’t offer many novelties. However, here in England I was sitting behind the wheel on the right side of a car but on the left side of the road while trying to shift gears with my left arm. It’s no exaggeration to write that until I succeeded in overcoming my ingrained driving habits, my nervous system took a beating. Kay’s too, since as navigator she was coping with the myriad of winding roads that make up much of the British highway network. On the plus side, this unfamiliarity was eased by the orderly and disciplined manner of English driving.
In the city of Hereford, where we spent two comfortable nights in a lovely B & B, the site not to be missed is the cathedral. Smaller than York Minster though equally beautiful, Hereford Cathedral has some very special attractions. One of these is the Mappa Mundi, a 13th-century vellum map that depicts a Christian-Centric world as scholars of the time imagined of it. Dead center on the map and disproportionately large sits the city of Jerusalem while the Mediterranean, the Marmara and the Black Sea appear as the medieval world’s principal bodies of water. Then there is the town shown as Chalcedon; it’s the ancient name of today’s Kadiköy, the part of Istanbul where I sit writing this letter. It’s not everyone who can find his or her town on a 13th-century map.
In a room adjacent to the Mappa Mundi is a ‘chained’ library, the only one we’d ever seen. As its name suggests, in a chained library each book is attached to its shelf by a chain just long enough so that it can be laid flat and opened on a surface below its shelf. To facilitate this, the books are shelved with their spines inward so that, at a glance, one can’t tell one book from another. The chains were a state-of-the-art security device at a time before printing when each hand-made book was unique and precious.
Herefordshire is one of England’s loveliest districts. Acting on a tip given us by a local book lover, we made an excursion to Hay-on-Wye, just over the border in Wales. This town, in the prettiest of natural settings, stands alone in its disproportionate number of bookstores.
They are everywhere, dozens of them, making Hay-on-Wye the “used-book capital of the world.” Each spring the town swells with authors and bibliophiles during its important annual festival of literature. Kay, so struck as she was by the town and its amenities, would have been happy if our travels had ended there; however, we were expected down the road where other pleasures awaited us.
Joan Aubrey-Jones is by any standard a remarkable woman. In her long life she has studied at Oxford, lived through the London Blitz, raised a family, traveled widely with her diplomat husband, run her own architectural consulting business, and continues to be an active leader in her community of Felpham on the West Sussex Coast. We met by chance through mutual friends a couple of years ago in Dubrovnik where she had gone to skipper a sailboat among the Croatian Islands. Last year she stayed with us in Istanbul prior to embarking on a cruise of Black Sea ports, and this year we met again at her lovely home near Bognor Regis. Joan entertained us royally. By day we visited historic Arundel and Petworth while in the evening we went to the theater.
One of the things absent from our lives in Istanbul, one that we dearly miss, is English-language theater. Fortunately, no matter what the season, theater abounds in Britain, and on our trips there we take in as much as we can. The highlight of this trip was the production of Oklahoma that Joan took us to at the nearby Chichester Festival. It was a great evening. We were moved and delighted by the power and authenticity the British actors and singers brought to this American masterwork.
One way that Joan is very British is in her passion for gardening. Her flower garden is a showpiece. Everywhere we looked there was color, and the honeybees were very happy.
Arundel, a few minutes’ drive from Joan’s home, is the site of 700-year-old, seat of the dukes of Norfolk. This splendid structure is both a true castle with barbican, portcullis and crenellated keep, as well as a stately home with a sublime collection of furnishings, tapestries, sculpture, paintings and other artifacts. Even with the knowledge that the dukes and their families had centuries to amass their collections, the extent and priceless quality of what they collected is awesome.
The charms of England aren’t confined to the grandiose and the magnificent. Near Joan’s home in Felpham is a small church that with its churchyard, Norman tower and ancient lineage might be the paradigmatic English village church. Joan calls it the Saxon Church, and though a church building did occupy its site in Saxon times, most of the present building dates from later centuries. As we were leaving we happened to meet the young vicar, who informed us the parish had raised money to have a window made to honor William Blake who had lived nearby for three years and had worshiped at St Mary’s. He wrote the following lines about Felpham and its church:
“Away to sweet Felpham, for heaven is there:
The ladder of Angels descends through the air,
On the turret its spiral does softly descend,
Through the village it winds, at my cot it does end.”
On our final evening in Felpham, Joan organized an elegant dinner party at her home. It was a catered affair, to which she invited some charming friends who live nearby. It was a memorable evening of delicious food and delightful conversation, a perfect conclusion to our visit.
On to London and our final stay at the home of friends Nick Boreham and Madeleine Campbell. We had met Nick and Madeleine before leaving New York where Madeleine worked for the British Foreign Office and Nick studied with Kay and I at the New School. We got to know Nick even better in Prague where a group of us did our month-long New School teaching practicum.
Unfortunately, it was during the workweek, and since Nick and Madeleine both have full-time jobs, our time together was limited. During the daytime hours while our hosts were at work, Kay and I would take the Underground from Putnam Bridge into the central city. Having already seen much of London on previous visits, we used this short stay to visit only a few specific sites.
We went to the enormous Victoria and Albert Museum to look at its collection of Indian sculptures, an interest of mine fostered by my recent trip to the subcontinent. We also discovered the Courtauld Gallery at Somerset House with its stunning collection of paintings.
We even went by tube to North London’s enormous St Pancras railway station. While it’s been efficiently modernized inside, its façade is still the extravagantly ornate Victorian pile that was originally the Grand Midland Hotel.
Wanting to spend a few hours in the East End, we walked along the Strand and Cheapside taking in a few sights along the way. In the Temple we had hoped to see the interior to London’s only round church, built by the Knights Templar and used as a mysterious setting in Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code. Sadly, the church was closed, but we got pleasure watching the denizens of the surrounding Inns of Court as they stepped quickly to and fro.
In the City, we spent some quiet moments inside Wren’s St Mary-le-Bow church, badly damaged during the Blitz but now tastefully restored.
The City’s medieval Guildhall, headquarters for centuries of the City Corporation, was a surprise discovery. We learned that this is where the Lord Mayors of London are invested and where the Prime Minister makes an important annual speech. Its Great Hall is magnificent; its statuary includes monuments to Wellington and Winston Churchill as well as mythical heroes Gog and Magog. On one wall is a plaque listing the various individuals, famous and infamous, who, during England’s earlier history, were tried on the premises. What they have in common is that they were all found guilty and executed.
London’s East End has been greatly gentrified in recent years. Brick Lane, where we ate our final London dinner, is now home to a trendy assortment of Indian shops and restaurants.
The weather during our days in London was exceptionally hot. Around the city children bathed in the fountains, youths sunbathed in the parks, and everyone wore as few clothes as they could get away with. Our final day spent in Kew Gardens was no different. We walked its beautiful acres under a blazing sun. The gardens are reputed to contain as many as 14,000 trees, yet there never seemed to be enough shade. We missed the cloudy skies of Yorkshire that were like those in Dutch paintings.
The gardens are special, though. They are the product of 250 years of care and attention. During much of their youth they were strictly a royal domain, and their architects and designers studded them with conservatories, mock temples, and other picturesque follies. Kew Palace, which predates the gardens, doesn’t look like a palace at all but instead like the Dutch merchant’s home that it had been before the royals acquired it. It’s beautifully restored and furnished as it was in the 18th century when George III, Queen Charlotte, and their family led a quiet domestic existence there.
I’d like to end this overlong epistle with a few thoughts and observations from our two-week tour.
More so than practically any other country we visit, Britain is expensive, and we wonder how Brits cope with the high cost of daily life. Apropos of this we noticed the large number of charity shops in the towns we visited. These sell used clothes and other second-hand merchandise, and they always had customers.
We spent our first night in England in the city of Northampton, not too far from Luton airport where we had landed. As we drove into town at about 7:30 in the evening, we were startled to find all the shops closed and no one on the street. For residents of Istanbul formerly from New York City, it felt eerie to find ourselves all alone on a main thoroughfare in the early evening.
Can a country become too developed? Britain has been likened to a “nanny state” whose governmental bodies have so carefully structured peoples’ lives and movements that they feel overprotected. Not that Britain is alone in this; it’s a creeping trend in all Western countries, including the U.S. It’s just that in Britain, with its ubiquitous road markings, speed cameras in every village, “mind the gap” announcements on the Underground, etc., for some of us life might seem too regimented.
In spite of this observation, however, it was interesting to note that, even though the country has had its share of terrorist problems, we saw very little in the way of police and military presence on the streets. There were no machine-gun carrying soldiers guarding public buildings as there are in Turkey, India and other democracies.
On balance, Britain — with its rich culture, great city of London, long and fascinating history, natural beauty, respect for its past, and even its unpredictable weather — is one of the most interesting and entertaining countries on our planet. We’ll be back.