Dorset of My Dreams

“Oh, to be in England…”

–Robert Browning

[The chalk coast of Dorset. Photo: Google Search]

It all started on a late winter morning of 1984. I was walking to my office at King & Low-Heywood Thomas School (KLHT) in Stamford, Connecticut. Walking with me was a teacher/administrator. She was going through her teacher-mail regarding microscope sales and Petri dish discounts. She held on to an envelope and after a few moments glanced at the contents, she turned to me and said: “Here, maybe you will find this interesting.” She handed me a letter. I took a quick look and put it on my desk. I had a first period class.

Later, after my ninth cup of Faculty Room Coffee I looked over the letter. It was from a business office in New York City. The company arranged Teacher Exchanges. I put it on my desk again and went off to meet with a student. As the Fates would have it, the British teacher who was seeking an exchange was right there in the office. We talked. He took the Amtrak to Stamford where I met him and took him to the school for a tour.

To make a long story short, this guy, Chris, really wanted to do the exchange. The Headmaster was not so enthusiastic. But, it all worked out in the end. Early August of 1984 found me on an late evening flight to Heathrow.

[Corfe Hills School, Corfe Mullen, Dorset. Photo: Source CHS webside]

A year is a long time to distill my experiences into a few paragraphs. Simply put, I had a few rocky days getting to know the ‘system’, meeting my colleagues, learning the names of my students and attempting to find my various classrooms. I was hired as a Geography teacher, a subject I love. I was happy. What was difficult was the number of courses they gave me to teach. I taught fifth and sixth form geography, General Studies and Religious Studies. They gave it all to me.

“Face it. You’re bloody irrelevant being here only a year,” some administrator told me on my second or third day.

[Last day of school. Two of my favorite students who helped me and gave me sage advice. Sally in the white blouse and Yzanne is to my right. Photo: Photo is mine]

I was never bored. When the weekends approached, I was faced with two choices (mostly): Take a hike on a Footpath in Thomas Hardy country or go to BritRail, buy a return and spend the weekend in a Cathedral city like Wells or Salisbury. I couldn’t get enough of the countryside, the dramatic coast of Dorset, the small villages that had little more than a pub. My ‘local’ pub was the Barley Mow. I can’t tell you how many pints and Steak & Kidney Pie I’ve eaten in that very old thatched building.

[A hillside with a copse of trees on the summit. Photo is mine]

I found some walks that went through some of the most picturesque locations. The sunken path below is near Shaftesbury. Madonna had a house nearby.

[One of my favorite footpaths. The trail itself is sunken about ten feet. Photo is mine]

The places I travelled are all marked off in my dozens of hiking guides. My personal best is a nine-mile walk that began in the parking lot of a pub called A Brace of Pheasants. I was exhausted at the end of the day. The Ploughman’s Lunch and two pints of Guinness helped me start out but didn’t help me finish. I had a Steak & Kidney Pie. It was a Sunday so I went home, took a shower and turned on Radio 4 to listen to a drama. Later, when I was a bit too hyped-up to sleep, I would tune to the station that carried “Prime Minister’s Question Time”. You can image how interesting that show was.

[Footpath signage. Photo is mine]

I have been back to Dorset many times since the mid ’80’s. I made every effort to share what my past was like by going on footpaths with Mariam. My favorite hill to climb is the Glastonbury Tor.

[Mariam on top of the Glastonbury Tor. Beneath her feet, King Arthur is said to await a return to save England. Photo is mine]

Mariam and I spent one Christmas (just before Covid) at a ancient northern Dorset pub called the White Lion Inn. A cozy room. A friendly bar downstairs and a garden eating area.

[The White Lion Inn. Photo is mine]
[A typical narrow back lane in Cornwall. Photo is mine]

Each trip Mariam and I make, we try to explore a different region. Above is our trip to Cornwall. We’ve been to The Lake District, Cornwall, Yorkshire, Dartmoor, the east coast and London, of course.

[Our close friends. They live in north Dorset. Anna is destined to be a great ballerina. Photo is mine.]

I’ve only picked out a minute part of the things I did while in Dorset. But, like all good adventures, I got a book out of it.

[So go out and buy yourself this book. It contains all my adventures (mostly). And it has color illustrations. A great holiday gift. Photo is mine]

Journey’s End

Pick a window…any window.  There’s nothing to see, only white.  We entered a fog bank.  Fog as thick as whole milk.  We’re sailing due west, nearing Long Island.

Visibility from our deck window is about ten feet.

The end of our three-month journey is about to end.  Nothing left, except to get through customs and get a taxi and get to our hotel.

Written on board the Queen Mary 2 at 7 pm on April 20.

 

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.

–Jacques Yves Cousteau

Travelling shouldn’t be just a tour, it should be a tale.

–Amit Kalantri

True wealth is…Places you go…People you meet…stories you tell.  Thank you for traveling to see us.  For being such wonderful people we meet…and for sharing and being in our stories.  Our paths will cross again soon.

–Tim Ovendon

 

[All photos are mine.]

 

The Glastonbury Tor Blog: The Excursionist XII

[The Tor at the start of our climb. St. Michael’s Tower crowns the hill]

Glastonbury is an ancient town nestled on a broad plain near the Mendip Hills in the county of Somerset.  It comes with a reputation, like that guy that sat in the last seat of your school bus.  You can shop for anything in Glastonbury, but you probably won’t find it.  What you can find is esoteric bookstores, more than one crystal shop and places where you can purchase a Druid-style cape (purple).

I love the town.

On my first visit, back in 1984, when I was an exchange teacher in Dorset, I found myself wandering the High Street.  After climbing the stairs to the second floor of an antique shop, I saw something I really wanted.  It was the part of the jaw bone of St. Basil.  There was even a Bishop’s seal on the glass box indicating its authenticity.  Best of all, it was reasonably priced at £50.  I didn’t buy it and I regret that to this day.

Now, I’m here with Mariam on our second visit.  We dined at the George & Pilgrim Hotel which dates back to about 1452.  It has three ghosts (according to some).  I never saw anything except a fantastic Steak and Ale Pie.

[The well-worn floor of the George & Pilgrim Hotel]

But our real goal that day was to climb the famous Tor.

The Tor has a ton of lore and myth that connects it with the figure of King Arthur.  Did the man ever exist?  Some say yes and some claim he was a combination of several of war-lords in the Saxon days.

[Nearing St. Michael’s Tower]

Whatever.  I love mythology and I love the Arthurian legends.  And, it was the Tor that made it all so real and believable.  According to legend, Glastonbury was the mythical Avalon.  This is where Arthur was taken after he was wounded in his final battle against his own son.  He is said to be buried, alongside his wife (?) Guinevere.  He is awaiting the call to bring his army, once again, to save Britain.

[Mariam contemplates the landscape]

[Parliament is voting as I write this on the Brexit…is Arthur stirring in his grave?).

I stood in the doorway of St. Michael’s Tower and looked out over the countryside.  I thought of the history that is so ancient, it’s sobering.  For more than 1,000 years people who climbed the Tor, worked the fields, herded the sheep, drank the ale, sipped wine, smoked old pipes with old tobacco, kissed in the churchyard, held firm to a quartz crystal, loved someone, lost someone and eventually died were all within my field of vision.

If you are a cynic, that’s okay.  But, if you read history, study myths and let your mind travel, you won’t be the same after a visit to Glastonbury.

[Me. Thinking about ancient times and myths]

[All photos are mine]

 

 

 

 

Barcelona To Bristol: The Excursionist IX

[On the approach to Bristol Airport]

The rain wasn’t falling anywhere near us on the morning we boarded the EasyJet plane in Barcelona.  I was stuck with a window seat (ok, I had a chance to move to the aisle but I chose to have a view).  We soared out over the Mediterranean before making a turn to the northeast.  Not fifteen minutes passed before I could see the Pyrenees, snow-capped and dazzling in the Spanish sun.  However, the moment we crossed into French airspace, there was nothing but clouds, white and endless like an enormous bowl of milk.  It was like that until we were making our approach to Bristol Airport (see above photo).

We checked into the Marriott on Lower Castle Street.  Our plan was simple: we (I) wanted to visit the Cathedral [one list on my Bucket List is to visit all the English Cathedrals…I’m a frustrated architect] but the walk was a good fifteen minutes and I was having a serious problem.

The aforementioned “problem” is that my eye fell on a pair of handsome leather boot/shoes on a visit to the Bass outlet in Lake Placid.  This was about three weeks before we were to leave on our three-month trip to England.  To be honest, I haven’t wore leather shoes in a very long time.  I remembered there was a process called “breaking the shoe in”…I did this by walking from our living room to the dining room about twenty times.  This is not the way to break a shoe in!  And, for what its worth, I have a slight deformity in my right foot.  What does this all mean?

It means I had very sore feet only five minutes into the walk.  I needed a rest.  I needed a sit-down.  I needed a beer.

And, there it was, on Corn Street.  It didn’t look like a typical British Pub.  It wasn’t the Queen’s Arms, The White Hart, The Fox and Hounds or the King’s Arms.  It was called The Commercial Rooms.

[The Commercial Rooms]

We went in and found it was a fair-sized pub and restaurant.  We ordered and sat.  I whined about my shoes.  I told Mariam I was willing to find a Nike store and buy a pair of proper walkers.  It was then that I noticed a fine-looking clock on the wall behind the bar.  Wait.  It wasn’t a clock.  There were no numbers.  Instead there were cardinal compass points.  It was a four-foot diameter compass on the wall.  I was more than curious.

[The Compass]

[A closer look]

I had to find out what this was doing on the wall so I approached the bartender.  He told me that the building was once a club of traders and merchants.  There was once a weather vane on the roof (it no longer works) that would relate the wind direction to the traders…informing them when it was the right conditions to launch their ships.

There were several plaques on the wall that listed the names of past presidents of the Commercial Rooms.  There were names like G. Marsden-Smedley and Richard A. Flowerdew.  Good and proper English names.

Pretty cool.

Then it was onto the Cathedral.  I didn’t find it as beautiful as Salisbury (and it certainly wasn’t anything like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona), but it was worth the visit.

[Mariam stands in distance…near the Altar of the Bristol Cathedral]

Before leaving, I removed the inserts from my shoes.  It made things much better.  We walked home and made plans to have dinner.

I had Hake and Mariam had Scallops.

A beautiful end to an uneven day.

 

The Enigma of Knowlton Church: The Excursionist VII

[Knowlton Church…front facade]

In the middle of Cranborne Chase, a hilly and breezy open region in north Dorset,  is the shell of a Norman church.  Nothing special really.  These churches are found in many villages and hamlets of Dorset.  What is unusual is that it is built-in the middle of a Neolithic ritual henge (a ring of ridges dating from ancient days).

The church sits alone…surrounded by earthen works built by Pagans.  The building is a shell, built with stone and flint.  It looks lonely.  There is an aura of melancholy that pervades the site.  If one sat on the henge, took the time to contemplate the view…I believe a sadness would fall upon you.

According to my google search, the Knowlton Church is one of the ten most haunted places in Dorset.  The visions that have been reported include a rider on a horse that charges through the grounds and vanishes as it enters the church.  A weeping woman, sometimes described as a nun, has been seen.  A face has been observed looking out of the upper window of the tower.  A hooded man, tall and quiet has crossed the path of a visitor in recent years.

The enigma?  Why is there a Christian church built within the walls of a pagan ritual henge?  Why is the church only an empty shell now?  And, most interesting, is why is the village of Knowlton no longer in existence?  History tells us that the town was hit hard by the Black Death…those who survived drifted to other regions.  Remains of the homes are visible on the grounds to the west of the ruins.

When Mariam and I stood on the ring earthen works, the wind blew with a force that nearly blew her glasses off.  I was wearing my L.L.Bean coat and a chill cut through me like a razor.  I wanted to stay and absorb the atmosphere , the solitude, the isolation and the loneliness, but Mariam and I could hardly stand upright in the wind.

Was the wind telling us something?

Were we on sacred ground?  Haunted ground?  Unforgiving ground?  The melancholy began to take hold of me.

But, as we drove away, I sensed something.  I need to return to this place, this lonely place and spend some time…thinking, dreaming and imagining.

[Another view of the church]

[Photos are mine]

[Historical information: Google search]

The First Real Ramble: The Excursionist IV

[I’ll sneak this post in while many of you will still be reeling from Michael Cohen’s testimony in Congress.]

Well, we took our first real walk through the fields of Dorset today.  It was time.  It was overdue.  And it was one of the main reasons we’re here…to walk and to avoid the snow.

I’ve worn the same pair of flannel-lined jeans since we left New York (yes, they’ve been washed several times). And I was unsure of which socks to wear with my hiking boots.  I’ve developed a few foot issues (along with the usual back things) so this was a chance to see how I would hold up…doing what I love…walking the footpaths of England.  If you’re a long-time follower of my blogs, you will know what I’m talking about.

[The RR tunnel had that Jack the Ripper feel when you pass through.]

We chose to do the Stour River Way.  Mariam had done the entire walk with our friends, Tim and Jo, about five days ago.  We went without a map.  At one point we passed through a short tunnel under the railway.  It had the look of something out of Dickens.  When we passed an old mill (that was painted by Constable in the 19th Century) she was unsure of the way to proceed.  So, we turned back and returned to our home in Gillingham.  It was a good thing.  My back was slowly going south (I’ll need a patch of that icy heat thing tonight).  My boots held up and my feet only began to bother me as we got back to the starting point.

[My usual photo of a tree in a meadow.  I love naked trees in the late winter.]

The moral?  Stay in shape.  Wear the right inserts.  And, enjoy…

[All photos are mine.]

The Fly Over: The Excursionist V

[Photo of a page of the Guardian newspaper]

I like fly overs.  The jets roar over a stadium during halftime…or more interestingly, the  Italian Air Force planes that swept over the church in Italy the moment when Pavarotti’s coffin was brought out of the church.  But deep down in my conscience, I see fly overs as a glorification of the military and by extension, a glorification of war.

So while they’re sometimes thrilling…they often send a message that I do not agree with.

Then I ran across a short article in a British newspaper yesterday.  After reading it, I felt quite moved…very moved.

The old fellow you see in the photo is eighty-two.  His name is Tony Foulds.  In 1944, he was eight years old.  He and his mates were playing in a park.  A B-17 Flying Fortress was having problems.  They needed a place to crash-land.  The pilot, an American along with nine other Yanks aboard, intended to land in the field.  The pilot spotted the children running around the field.  He purposely avoided the playing area and ended up crashing into the trees nearby. All ten Americans on the plane were killed.

Tony watched in horror.  And this horror is still with him today.  Years after the tragedy, the county council erected a memorial stone.

Every year since then, Tony has tended the memorial…planting flowers…and remembering.

A few days ago, a combined UK and US teams of pilots did a fly over.

Tony will be there.  Tony will probably cry.  Tony somehow feels responsible for the ten deaths.

He was just playing a game with his mates.

Fate is…it just is.  Isn’t it?

Looking For A Proper Lane To Ramble Along: The Excursionist IV

[Me rambling in Dorset. Deep in thought.]

Finding places to ramble (walk) in England is something even a guy like me can do.  That is unless I’m going to wear my clean hiking boots.  Who wants to track mud into our host’s home?  And, it is the mud season here.  I haven’t seen any snow since we left Rainbow Lake, sometime in late January.  (There is a God.)  Now, if I had a proper pair of Wellies, which I don’t, mud would not represent a problem.

But here I am searching for a paved lane or byway to stroll on a Sunday afternoon.  That brings up a new problem.  Avoiding the possibility of being an accident statistic.

“TWO ELDERLY YANKS FORCED INTO THORNY HEDGEROW ALONG NARROW DORSET LANE.

LOCAL HEDGEHOG FRIGHTENED!”

Let me say in my defense, there is NO shoulder along these rural lanes…or are they byways?

I found one that had a perfect tree in the perfect place with perfect hedgerows.  It was very narrow, so I only used it as a photo-op.  We didn’t walk far.  Once the photo was done, we turned back and walked along a more traveled road.  The cars rushed by and pinned us against the hedges.  Which lane to walk? They drive on the left so we walk…on the right? On the left?

But, no problem.  That’s what English rambling is all about.

When the soil begins to dry from the spring rains, we shall be taking to the off-road footpaths.

Then I will be in my blissful space.  Then I will walk along paths that others have walked for 10,000 years.

I’m not the only one who likes to ramble.

 

North Dorset Once Again-The Excurinist III

[A London Pub. Nothing to do with this post.]

We’re with our friends in North Dorset…once again.  I met Tim when he was a rookie teacher when I was an exchange teacher in the mid-1980’s.  Now he’s nearing retiring.  His wife, Jo, is a major player in the local school, psychologist, and tutor.

We love these folks.  They have provided us with a free loft bedroom for two months!  That will allow us to travel to Spain or perhaps Norway.  We have two months.  We’re free and unencourmbed.

Mariam drove on the left for the second time today…to the local grocery market.  I was a nervous passenger, but she did so well.  It’s not easy when all we could book was a standard shift. So many things to thing about whether as a driver or a passenger.  Full disclosure : I have driven on the left since the 1980’s.

Anyway, we are fine and the lack of blogs has to do with the difficulty of getting photos from my camera.

WiFi is difficult in England and in Europe in general.  Most hotels say “free wifi” but the reality is quite different.

Hopefully, I can get inside the wi-fi issue and post more amazing and incredulous posts.

One note: We saw a magic show in London. In the hotel pub.  The woman was a world-class card trick player. I am humbled by what she did since I have two card tricks I can do.

Cheers!

 

The Night Lauren Bacall Heard Me Cough

[Photo source: IMDb]

I lived for almost thirty years on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It’s an artsy neighborhood. And it’s not uncommon to cross paths with famous people, most often actors. My wife was in the Blockbuster Video store, in line behind Michael J. Fox.

“I think your next,” he said to Mariam.

“And I think you’re great,” she said to him.

She stood in line at Fairway on Broadway behind Francis McDormond.

“I love your work,” Mariam said.

“Thank you,” replied the Oscar-winning actor.

I had a moment of greatness too. I went into our neighborhood Mexican restaurant…Gabriella’s. I calmly walked passed a chubby guy sitting at one of our favorite outside tables…with his family. He had cut off denim shorts, a thin wife and a hefty kid or two.

It was James Gandolfini. Tony Soprano was sitting at my table. I didn’t raise a fuss. I’ve been to Jersey City. I knew the deal. First come, first serve.

That was life in New York City!

Let’s go back in time. It’s 1984. I’m an exchange teacher in Dorset, England. I befriended a young woman when I signed up for a screen-printing and etching course at the Poole Arts Center. I made sure I sat near her. She was pretty and a very good artist…and a gourmet cook.  I still have one of her etchings on my wall. She was a mid-wife, a surf-boarder and a sweet attractive woman. We became friends. We went out for eats and a pint or two after class. She promised me she’d teach me how to wind-surf in Poole harbor. We never got to do it.

But one thing we did get to do was see a play.

I had tickets to the Salisbury Playhouse production of Sweet Bird of Youth.  I asked her if she would like to go. Yes, she said.

[This is the movie with Paul Newman and Geraldine Page. Photo is mine.]

“How about dinner?”, I asked.

“I’m a good cook what do you think you would like?”, she said. I made a joke. “Oh. Shrimp Scampi and some caviar.”

She picked me up in her MG (mounted with a wind-surfer board rack). She had a picnic basket. I peaked inside. There was shrimp scampi, caviar and a bottle of white wine. We spread a blanket on the lawn in front of the main entrance of Salisbury Cathedral. The air was crisp. The food was awesome. The view was breathtaking.

We finished and made our way to our seats at the Playhouse. The lights went down. Sweet Bird of Youth began. Lauren Bacall was playing aging actress. I don’t recall the leading man.

That’s when Lauren and I connected.

There was a scene where she was lounging on a bed, waiting for her lover. The theater was stone quiet. The silence was intense. But the need in my throat couldn’t linger. I needed to cough.

I coughed.

She didn’t look into the audience like they do now days when a cell phone goes off. But, I knew she HAD to have heard me cough. There was no other sound. Only me.

Years later, I flipped through her autobiography in a narrow aisle at a Barnes & Noble. I found no reference to me, the cough, the disruption, or the shrimp scampi. I wonder how long my cough stayed with her.

I have a feeling that I was no match for Bogie.

“You know how to cough, don’t you? You just lower your head and make a gasping sound.”