Archive | January, 2012

I can stop any time

31 Jan

Psst.  Pssst.  I hear there’s a great old church up in Elkstone.  12th century.  Norman arches — zig-zag jambs.  You in?  What, you’re not sure?  15th c font, 14th c porch, Jacobean altar rails, 12th c grave cover and 17th c table tombs in the graveyard … all in excellent condition … this is some good stuff.  The village is in the Domesday Book.  C’mon, it won’t take long.  Just try it, if you like it we’ll stay, maybe see some more stuff.

This is how I’ve started talking to my family.  I’m a pusher of antiquity.  I’m hooked, and I want to hook them too, so they’ll come with me down whatever single-track pheasant-infested rickety-bridged lane I feel called to travel along at any particular moment.

This weekend, it was Elkstone Church, built in 1160 and dedicated to John the Evangelist.  It’s the highest church in the Cotswolds (1000 feet above sea level) and something entirely unique.  A walk through a misty and cold wooded graveyard, entry through a heavy wooden door through an unlit porch passage and then the final heavy door opens: I gasp and the interior breathes back at me.

Small churches in this romanesque style aren’t flashy or pyrotechnic like later gothic churches.  They create space at a human level.  The eye doesn’t bounce and soar and get tangled in tracery and dazzled in light — but the lungs can open, the eyes rest, the spirit calm.

We’re in the habit of lighting a candle at whatever church we visit, but Elkstone Church has a tradition I hadn’t seen before — a ribbon tree.  How lovely, and fire-safety-conscious.

The chancel arches are simply amazing … you won’t find too many of these in England.  To the left a small door to the dovecote above (locked today).  Straight ahead, what feels like the glowing heart of the church, the 1929 stained glass virgin and child in original stone window arch.

To the right, the eucharist plate, so simply kept, where it has been for almost a thousand years.  (A thousand years!  Really think about that … hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of moments, standing in just that spot, looking out just that window, saying the same prayerful words.)  Wish my camera were superior — the light was like a Van Eyk painting.

Turning around to walk to the west end of the church, we note the vampires

Here’s that 15th c font — I was getting a very Van Helsing sort of vibe at this point.

This is where I’ll be when the dark falls.

The tower is a later addition, with a very different feel

I came to marvel at the ancient stone but it’s just as marvelous to realize this is a living church.  There are cushions in the stalls; fresh flowers in the windows; even the village cookbook for sale along with postcards and gospels.  We brought home a cookbook.

There are a few websites with more information and photos about this church: the village (look here if you want directions); the BBC (scroll down), the Hound of Heaven blog, and freerangephotography.

Psst. Pssssst.  I got a lead on some medieval stained glass windows.  28 of ’em.  The only complete medieval glazing scheme to survive in England.   It won’t take long.  Want to give it a try?

Stack ’em high

29 Jan

I’m finally getting around to unpacking the rest of our boxes.  I’ve talked about this before.  And before.  And before.  If I don’t unpack all these boxes soon, I’ll be talking about it forever.  I’ve realized that three months is the grace period for unpacking.  If you still have boxes around within three months of moving, you’re fine.  Normal.  After three months, you’re a slob.  The cut off is abrupt and merciless, and despite all your rationalizations you know it is true.* Our boxes arrived in the middle of November.  That means I have just a few weeks before I descend into full-on slob territory.  And while it’s true I didn’t come here to vacuum … I do need to be able to walk around.

To that random stranger in 2000 who wanted to ‘explain’ to me ‘what sci-fi/fantasy is’ because ‘not too many girls know’: suck it.

On moving day, as our movers brought in box after box, it was clear early on that our conservatory was going to become a book box burial ground.  We brought thousands of books over with us from the US.  You may ask why, and it’s a fair question.  I’ll try to explain.  It’s like this — OH MY GOD LOOK OVER THERE! WHAT WAS THAT NOISE? IS THAT DANIEL CRAIG?  Sorry, what were we talking about?  Who cares about explanations, anyway.

A few days ago I sat down in my sunny room and decided enough was enough.  I unpacked 16 boxes of books and stacked them around the low walls of the room.   It’s cozy and colorful in here with all the books for company, and I feel like a charmingly eccentric English prof.

Let’s stick with ‘charmingly eccentric’, okay? 

I’ve made some great finds.  Some ancient french materials from grammar school (Okapi, anyone?).  Old friends like Dorothy Dunnett, Ellis Peters, and Margaret Frazer.  Needlepoint samplers.  A journal kept while travelling in Egypt.  Piles of old letters from college.  A copy of my taxes from 1995.  And before you remind me how stupid it was to ship copies of fifteen-plus-year-old taxes overseas, let me inform you that these taxes have been following me around in that very same box for not just seventeen years but through THREE countries and FIVE states.  May I please collect my prize for silliest preservation of paperwork?  I promise I’ll keep it safe.  In a box.  Forever.

What a laugh.  After dedicating myself to touring and exploring everything new and wonderful in this fantastical country, I  spend the entire day sorting and stacking the past and cleaning house.  But it’s all good:  I found a Fodor’s London Travel Guide.  From 1996.  Useful.

Only 10 more boxes to go.

*Edited to add:  Of course this merciless cut off does not include boxes in basements; attics; closets; in garages; in sheds; in car trunks;  under sinks or beds or stuffed in cabinets.  I’m talking about the boxes I had sitting out in the middle of our main living spaces.  For those: three months.  For the rest: eternity is soon enough.

M&M&M&mmmmmm cookies

27 Jan

I made these cookies several days ago, using a slightly-modified recipe from  All modifications were made from sheer laziness.  I used ‘self-rising’ flour and added the candies right in to the batter; then simply rolled the dough into balls and dropped on the sheets instead of the whole flattening-out bit.  So they look different, but the taste … well, there weren’t any left by the end of the day.  Also, my scoops were smaller, and I got slightly over 2 dozen cookies from this recipe, not just 15.

2 C self-rising flour
1/4 t salt
3/4 C unsalted butter
2/3 C sugar
2/3 C brown sugar
1 egg + 1 egg yolk
1 t vanilla extract
1 C m&m candies

Start with the ingredients!

Hmm?  Yes, I am showing off my new Emma Bridgewater Diamond Jubilee tea towel.

The dough will be very dough-y.  Like playdough.  Very easy to pinch off into balls.

Line them all up and bake in a 350F oven for about 15 minutes.

And then show off your new tea towel again as they cool.  Delicious.

I didn’t come here to vacuum

25 Jan

And believe me, if you looked inside my house you’d see I don’t care much for laundry or dusting, either.  My point being: every time I spend a weekend cleaning house, I berate myself for not getting outside and checking out the history and countryside around me.  Why sort the linen closet when you can go to a Roman villa?  I mean, really.

“Foreigners,” as a neighbor informed me, “always care about these things more than people who live here.”  The nagging feeling that I’m regarded as an easily impressed hayseed aside, I have no problem being the enthusiastic foreigner who spends her spare time rummaging through the countryside.  My kids are catching on, and like me have their own collection of the modern equivalent of medieval pilgrim badges —  in their cases, usually pencil sharpeners or flattened pennies found in museum gift shops.  Or when there’s no shop: a rock, a leaf, a twig, or a conker.

In the past month we’ve had so many ‘days out’ I can’t seem to catch up.

Dean Forest Railway Santa Train — where kids get presents and parents get booze.

Shakespeare’s Birthplace.  They are very interested in historical accuracy and living history here.  I was a little worried someone was going to actually have a baby right in the bed as part of the tour, to add to the verisimilitude.

Stonehenge.  Almost feels like there should be a sign: “Real Thing – Not A Movie Set”

Salisbury Cathedral. Like a dream.

Warwick Castle.  Like a Renaissance Festival on steroids.  With all-you-can-drink espresso.

Bourton-on-Water, again, to see the floating tree while it was still on display.  Even though Bourton-on-Water is widely deprecated as overrun with tourists, I love it. Though I don’t think I can call it “the Venice of the Cotswolds” with a straight face.

The Roman Baths.  Must be crazy here in the summer — winter is a beautiful un-crowded time to visit at leisure.

Northleach.  This is one of the fourteenth-century brass engravings found in the medieval wool church.

Great Witcombe Roman Villa.  Part of its charm has to be the walk past the horse pastures to get here.

A relentless group tour of pottery houses in Stoke-on-Trent.  (This was stop number four in a six-house tour.)

And the National Waterways Museum by the Gloucester historic docks, where I promptly fell in love with Narrowboat Roses and Castle folk art while the kids got soaked figuring out a hands-on display of a river locks system.

Have I gone a bit crazy?  Should I be spending more time cleaning out my fridge?  I will think about that seriously for at least two minutes.

Nah.  Bring it on, English Heritage Smart Phone App! C’mon, Slow Cotswolds, with your asparagus festivals and shin-kicking competitions!   Serve it up, internet, show me your What’s On guides!  Vacuuming can wait.

Bug busting

23 Jan

I don’t want to offend anyone with this post.  I’m sure I will anyway, so, I apologize now.  If you are prone to offense, why not go read about that peaceful chapel again and just skip today.  Also if you get itchy when you think about lice, maybe come back another time.  Okay, that seems to have covered it!  Moving on …

I do get a little weirded out about cooties.  And each country has it’s own particular cooties, germs, parasites, and assorted creepies and crawlies both large and small.  But let me just say … threadworms.  And … verrucas. And …  winter vomiting disease.  And … lice. Are you itchy, yet?  Is that your hair brushing on your neck or SOMETHING CRAWLING ON YOU?!

So far, I’ve found the British attitude toward these assorted shudder-inducing agents to be reserved (perhaps typically).  Basically as if lice … or threadworm … or verrucas … or annual vomiting … are simply par for the course.  Just the way things are done.  If a child at school has lice it warrants nothing more than “check her head, we found lice in the class today.”  Seriously?  Seriously.  Seriously?

My personal approach is more reminiscent of total global warfare than reserved acceptance.  More like:

Call for air support!

January 31st is a national “bug busting” day.  Not a celebration destined to be one of my favorites.   “The aim of these sessions is to inform children and their parents about the behaviour of head lice and how to detect and remove them. Co-ordinating bug busting days across the country can help to prevent head lice circulating.”

Did you just shudder?  I did.  I can’t quite stop.

I know this is not a British thing.  I know we have lice and vomiting and warts and cooties in the US.  Somehow it doesn’t matter.  My dream of Camelot does not include anal worms.

I told you to skip this post.

Odda’s Chapel

21 Jan

Not really a day out: more of a gentle excursion to explore more of our local history.  We are rich not only in Roman antiquities and medieval wool trade towns, but also Saxon relics — including Odda’s Chapel, built in 1056.  Reading up before our jaunt was so much fun: English Heritage, Wikipedia, Early British Kingdoms, Sacred Destinations (fantastic photos here), and even a local holiday cottage all have wonderful pages about the chapel.

But before I go on I should say: calm down.  My last day out was a bit of a wild ride.  Odda’s Chapel is instead an oasis of calm and peacefulness.  After a long week of — well, let’s just say a long week — even looking at the photos is like a meditation on calm.  Breathe in — breathe out — and join me for a short walk.

The Chapel is tucked down a small one lane road and past a few innocuous houses.  During out visit we saw not another living soul but these cows.

I’ve been warned about these.  We paid!

It’s a good thing the gate is so clear about where it is located:

Because the view of the chapel from the road is so discreet as to be almost invisible:

And look — there’s another house attached to the chapel. (Read one of the histories for more information — the chapel was lost to history for hundreds of years and turned into a several forms of human dwelling.)

Round the corner.

And enter.

View from just inside the door.

Check out that roof.

The walls are almost a blank canvas — how does your imagination paint them?  With firesmoke, incense, whitewashing, murals, echoing the sounds of laughter or prayers — ?

View from the corner across from the entry.

Closer to that Saxon arch.

Through the arch, a copy of the original dedication stone — the original now at Oxford.

A view through the open timbered ceiling to the Tudor walls above.

Small offerings left to whatever remains of the locus dei.

View back through the arch.

The Chapel is kept impeccably tidy and neat — a testament to the English Heritage system.

The story of centuries in those changing patterns of bricks and mortars

Even some delicate graffiti.  (Of course, this made me think of Quake, probably not the artist’s intention.)

The grilled door invites you back out into the daylight.

And stroll back down for a last goodbye to the cows.

What a satisfying visit.  No crowds, no souvenir shops, no loud signs or even a gatekeeper to watch — just immediate communion with the spirit of the place and whatever remains of the Saxon kings and people who lived and worshipped here.

Where’s one of those Saint Bernard brandy rescue dogs when you need one?

20 Jan


Belly of the beast: youngest’s school costume closet. The mission: sort it out. This is where I’ve been all week. Be back soon —