The Grand Tour II: Hilltop History

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Edinburgh Castle on top of Castle Rock. Photo by Andy Coughlan

EDINBURGH — It is hard to imagine a more spectacular sight than looking up the craggy hill to see the medieval castle perched high above the town, unless it is the stunning view of the town from the castle’s walls high above. Edinburgh Castle is the highlight of a visit to a town that would be beautiful even without it.

The castle stands 430 feet above sea level. There is evidence of human settlement on top of Castle Rock, formed after a volcanic eruption some 340 million years ago, since the Iron Age in the second century, and a royal castle since the 12th century in the reign of King David I, son of St. Margaret. It was the home of kings until 1633, before being used as a military barracks.

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The view of Edinburgh from high atop the castle walls. Photo by Andy Coughlan

As a Scottish stronghold, it was the scene of many conflicts from the wars of Scottish independence to the Jacobite Rebellion in the mid-1700s. David McLean, writing in the Edinburgh News, says that, “having faced attacking forces no less than 23 times, Edinburgh Castle bears the extraordinary distinction as the most besieged place in Europe.”

During the Jacobite Risings the Scots attempted to recapture the castle from English control. The final attempt was in 1745, when the Jacobite army was led by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Although the Scots were able to capture the city, they could not lay siege to the castle and were forced to retreat in November. The Jacobite Rebellion was finally defeated at the Battle of Culloden, the last battle on Scottish soil. Bonnie Prince Charlie was forced into exile in France with a price on his head.

Of the existing buildings, St. Margaret’s Chapel dates from the early 12th century, and is the oldest extant building in the city. The castle is home to the Honours of Scotland and is the site of the Scottish National War Memorial and the National War Museum of Scotland and is Scotland’s most visited tourist attraction, with more than 1.4 million visitors in 2013, and more than 70 percent of visitors to Edinburgh visiting the castle. It is home to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. Another attraction is the 15th century Mons Meg canon that can fire a canonball more than two miles.

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The recreation of the prison at Edinburgh Castle. Photo by Andy Coughlan

The castle also houses a recreation of the prison which housed prisoners of many nationalities, including France, America, Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, Denmark and Poland, including a five-year-old drummer boy captured at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Wandering around the castle is like a stroll through a small town with cobbled thoroughfares inside the walls. The various buildings house stories of battles and heroic conflicts.

It is well worth the time to climb the battlements and take in the breathtaking view of the Queen City and the Water of Leith on the Firth of Forth. Strolling around Edinburgh Castle, one can breathe in 900 years of history, and feel the ghosts of past knights and warriors guarding generations of Scottish royals. It is a wonderful experience.

Admission is 17 pounds for adults and 10.20 pounds for children.

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The Grand Tour II: Jewel in England’s historical crown

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LONDON — One of the beauties of a European trip is the sheer wealth of opportunities to nerd out on history. A visit to the Tower of London ticks all the boxes.

Age? It was built in the 1070s, so that box is ticked. Spectacle? Well, it is the repository of the Crown Jewels, which literally shine and sparkle. Famous names? It was built by William the Conqueror, imprisoned the “Princes in the Tower” and Anne Boleyn, as well as being the site of executions for high treason. Which brings us to the best thing about the Tower — the stories. There are tales of intrigue, betrayal, power and bloodshed at every turn, tales that have inspired novels and plays for centuries.

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A Beefeater regales tourists with tales of the Tower of London.

The first thing a visitor must do is find out when the next tour starts. There will be plenty of time later to wander around and really take in the sights, but one really must get the full history. The tours are free and are held every 30 minutes, and the guides offer a splash of color, both with their stories and their traditional garb. The Yeoman Warders, better known as Beefeaters, were historically charged with guarding the Crown Jewels and watching over prisoners. They have served at the Tower since Henry VII formed the corp in 1458.

The current Beefeaters are retired military who must have served at least 22 years, and earned the Long Service and Good Conduct medal. There are 37 who live at the facility with their families in the 13th-century apartments.

The Beefeaters are as committed to entertaining the crowds as they were to their service, and the historical anecdotes, mixed with humor and excellent storytelling, is the best way to get the full feel of the place. Besides, being on a tour is the only way to get entry into the Tower’s church, St. Peter ad Vincula.

After the tour, armed with all the grisly details of British history, one is free to wander the grounds. The Crown Jewels are a must for the first-time visitor, but expect to wait in line (and it is one of those annoying places where the line continues for quite a while once one gets inside, so don’t be disappointed. There are plenty of historical displays to occupy the time inside). The jewels themselves are spectacular, although I find that seeing them once is enough for me.

Of more interest is the Royal Armoury. Located in the White Tower, the United Kingdom’s Museum of Arms and Armour is the oldest museum in the U.K. and features swords shields and armour dating from the Middle Ages.

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The Royal Armoury

On the first floor is the “Line of Kings,” featuring suits of armour from various monarchs. There are six suits of armour built for Henry VIII alone. The exhibition opened after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and has been in the White Tower since the 1880s, and was used to remind the populace of the king’s right to rule.

tower12Also on display is a “Collar of Torment” for prisoners, which, as one can imagine, was designed to make the wearing slightly uncomfortable. It is a reminder of the Tower’s position as a place of imprisonment for some of the most infamous prisoners in English history including the guilty, such as Guy Fawkes who was one of the Gunpowder Plotters; the inconvenient, such as the two princes who stood in the way of the future Richard III’s ascent to the throne; rebels, such as William Wallace the subject of the (bloody awful and historically incorrect) movie “Braveheart”; Henry VIII’s wives Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn (whose ghost is said to walk the tower); and the faithful, such as Sir Thomas More. Even the future Queen Elizabeth I was held there briefly in 1554 by her sister, Mary I, for her alleged involvement in Wyatt’s Rebellion.

For all that, only ten people were actually beheaded there, three of them Queens.

Traitors Gate, built by Edward I to provide an entrance from the River Thames, is named for the heads of recently executed prisoners that were displayed there on pikes. When one looks over the railing at the water gently lapping on against the dock, one is overwhelmed with the fascinating history that seems to be infused in every stone.

The Tower of London attracts two million visitors a year, and each one walks in the footsteps of England’s history.

Entry to the Tower is 21.50 pounds for adults aged 16 and over, and 9.75 pounds for children if purchased online. Family rates are available.

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A Full English Breakfast

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LONDON — What is it with the French? How do they manage to go through the day without passing out?

Now I am a staunch supporter of the concept of Europe, and I really believe that the people who voted for Brexit are the kin of Trump supporters — people who just “wanted to shake things up a bit but, oh wait, do you mean we are going to lose all these subsidies and life will be worse?’”

But there is one great divider between the Brits and the Euros — breakfast. Who decided that a “continental breakfast,” a croissant and a choice of 40 tiny bits of cheese, was enough to supply the energy needed to make it through a grueling workday.

A good full English breakfast is what is really needed. Lots of carbs, lots of fats, lots of gooey mingling of various delicious fluids — now that’s how to get your day going. And it has the added bonus of probably shortening your life, thus cutting down on the number of days you have to spend dealing with idiots. It’s a win-win situation if ever there was one.

During a recent trip to England we stopped off at a Polish café — because it was in Tooting in London, a diverse part of one of the most diverse cities in the world — for a full English breakfast. It starts with a pot of piping hot tea, which is best drunk with a splash of milk and some sugar, but to each his own.

What exactly constitutes a full English breakfast? Well, of course there are eggs, over easy preferably so the yolk can be popped and mixed in with the rest of the goodies on the plate. A couple of chunks of toasted sliced bread (we used to refer to them as door steps because they should really be sliced thick. Non-fats are taken care of with some fried mushrooms, a couple of the big ones, and some fried tomatoes. Add some potatoes (a pattie or chunks) and some baked beans to help lubricate the swallowing. Finally, the piece-de-resistance, the meat. A full English doesn’t force you to choose between sausage and bacon — you get both. And the bacon is not like the U.S. kind, it’s thick and almost hammy.

This is how to start the day. Give yourself an hour to eat and let it digest. No need for lunch, hell, no need for supper half the time. Now you are ready to walk around all day.

And that’s why the English had an Empire.

The Grand Tour II: Cemeteries a Lively Way to Spend a Day

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BRIGHTON, England — Ramona and I are constantly asked, “What is it with you guys and cemeteries?” It is true that on any trip, our social media feeds will feature at least one set of photos of graves.

So what is it that we find so fascinating? Well, for one thing, they are dead quiet (sorry, last intentional pun I promise).

But seriously, our vacations often consist of running from museum to gallery to historical monument, and a stroll through a random graveyard can be quite a pleasant escape.

cemeteryfallenI am not interested in pristine, well-manicured cemeteries. I like the ones that are overgrown in places, full of broken headstones and random fallen statuary. Woodvale cemetery in Brighton is full of broken graves. They are not the object of some mismanagement. It is just time taking its toll, and the graves forgotten or ignored by family. Sometimes, a 100-year-old grave has a bright, modern marble headstone, with the names or names of the deceased etched sharply into the stone. Obviously someone is paying attention.

But what of the others? The cemetery stretches for half a mile up a steep incline. The trees are thick away from the central road which leads to the church, and many have grown up through the middle of graves, breaking the stones and toppling the headstones. I find it comforting that whomever was sleeping underneath is more than likely part of the rich foliage that now offers shade.

 

 

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The older headstones are weathered and faded, the once crisp lines washed away to almost nothing in the 150 years since they were interred. We try to read the names, especially the ones where some long-ago relative thought enough to regale us with a little bit of history. He was a butcher, a policeman, a city councilor, or he was Sir Edward So-and-So of the Queen’s Royal Fusiliers.

cemstatue4Wives are buried with husbands — one headstone recorded a wife buried with both her husbands. I wonder if the first was comfortable spending eternity with his replacement?

On our most recent trip (yes we go to this one on each trip), we discovered a section that contained the graves of many people from the same years and roughly the same ages — 1914-18, during World War I. There were mentions of good sons, their lives cut short, and stories of bravery in action.

Many of them were from the three South Downs battalions that suffered massive losses at the Battle of the Boar’s Head, a diversionary raid the day before the Battle of the Somme, meaning it is all but forgotten. The three battalions finished with 366 killed and more than 1,000 wounded or captured. More than 70 percent were from Sussex and many were from Brighton.

The most poignant gravestone told of one young man, died in August 1917 from wounds he received in battle in March 1916. It was obviously important to whomever commissioned the headstone that we knew he took that long to die. With the state of medicine back then, I wondered how much pain he must have been in. If I remember, he was barely 20.

To be standing at this soldier’s grave, 100 years after his death, a tree nudging the stone sideways from one corner, I thought about him for a moment, then, squinting in the bright sunlight, with the faint hum of traffic from behind the stone wall, I walked up the hill to a lovely broken statue and took a photo. One hundred years ago, I like to think he enjoyed a moment in the sun, far away from the bloody battlefield.

Life is for the living, and sometimes it takes the dead to remind us to appreciate that.

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Teresa Baker at TASI

Artist Teresa Baker’s solo exhibition at The Art Studio, Inc. offers an interesting perspective on materials.

“So I’m always thinking, can an object have something that is, in some way, at least creating a reaction? Can you do that with just working with shape and color and material? I guess it’s kind of wondering how you can get belief out of a material thing?”

Here is my interview with her from the October 2017 ISSUE magazine.

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Artist Teresa Baker in her studio at 215 Orleans in Beaumont., Texas. Photo by Andy Coughlan

The Grand Tour II: Conservation Makes Old Streets New

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Brighton, England — The hippest section of Brighton is a prime example of modernization and conservation done right. The North Laine was formerly a poor, slum area of town that has been reborn as a bohemian highlight of one of the most diverse and cultural towns in England.

Located on the South Downs and bordering the English Channel, 50 miles south of London, the town of Brighthelmstone has been around since Roman times, but grew in leaps and bounds when “Prinny,” the Prince Regent, later George IV, moved the court to the town to take advantage of the medicinal and recuperative powers of the salt water.

NLsalvageThe original village is still intact, although much modernized, in The Lanes tourist shopping district. The North Laine (notice the different spelling), was outside of Brighthelmstone proper — no more than a quarter mile.

“Laine” is a Sussex dialect term for an open tract of land at the base of the South Downs, the chalk hills that run along the south coast of England. “Downs” is Sussex dialect term from an Anglo Saxon term for a farming land holding.

Brighton once was surrounded by five laines, but by the 19th century, the town had grown up and municipal roads surrounded it, followed by housing developments, and Brighton Railway Station appeared at the top of Trafalgar Street in 1840.

In the early 1800s, the North Laine was known mostly for squalor and a high number of slaughterhouses.

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The Foundry pub still retains a sign from its former identity and the Pedestrian Arms.

Even into the 1960s, the area was still working class. I spent a lot of time there as a small child, at my grandparent’s house, and I still remember the outside lavatory. Even in the 1950s the houses did not have electricity. It should be noted that I remember that in the area around the North Laine (on Foundry Street especially where my grandparents lived at No. 21), there was a sense of community that comes from shared experiences. I remember playing in the street with other kids while adults from the Pedestrian Arms pub (now The Foundry) would rotate popping out to ask us if we wanted a bag of crisps (chips in American parlance) or a lemonade.

In the 1970s, plans were afoot to demolish much of the North Laine and build high-rise flats and a car park. Brighton Borough planning officer Ken Fines pressured the local council to designate it as a conservation area and the streets between Trafalgar and North streets have since blossomed. Fines is commemorated for his vision with a blue plaque in his honor.

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Mr.Magpie Collector’s Emporium on Gloucester Road

Wandering around the streets now is a treat. It is by no means modernized or glamorized out of recognition. The shops have the same, slightly run-down look I remember from my youth, But they are now “cool.” The glasses shop where my partner bought her very-hip English spectacles is cool (and so are she and the glasses). The vintage toys shops are cool. The bookshops are cool, with many of their titles aimed at the town’s large LGBT community. The here’s-something-smelly-from-Asia-that-will-help-you-relax shop is cool. And the we-only-sell-amazing-Cornish-pasties shop is very cool.

Anita Roddick’s original Body Shop began in Kensington Gardens in 1976 — I was frequent customer myself to buy some exotic moisturizer or hair product (yes, I used to have hair), all in recycled packaging.

Brighton is a two-university tourist resort, and on any given day the North Laine’s tight streets are packed with young and old alike, and the shops have something for everyone.

Brighton is a “sophisticated, cosmopolitan town, and the North Laine is the perfect example of how to “gentrify” an area and still retain its charm and individuality.

For more, visit www.visitbrighton.com/shopping/north-laine or northlaine.co.uk. Or buy “The North Laine Book” published by Brighton Town Press.

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Review: ‘Mauritius’ earns ‘stamp’ of approval

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Sydney Haygood, front, and Chloe Sullivan in Lamar;s production of “Mauritius.” Photo courtesy of University Press by Noah Dawlearn

BEAUMONT, Texas — When Jackie enters a seedy stamp shop to ascertain the value of her stamp collection, she sets in motion a whirling series of interactions that play out like beautifully choreographed combats, with each character in the five-person ensemble thrusting and parrying for the upper hand. Do the stamps have value? And if so, value to whom?

Lamar University’s production of “Mauritius” by Theresa Rebeck, crackles from the opening scene to the last. Much credit goes to guest director Carolyn Johnson for her sure handling of the piece, which is tightly paced, never allowing the audience to settle on the side of any particular character.

However, I am sure Johnson will acknowledge that a director’s first, and most important, job is selecting the cast, and Johnson picked a dandy. The always impressive Sydney Haygood plays the “damaged” Jackie, who has inherited the stamp collection following her mother’s death. Haygood inhabits her character brilliantly, showing us her vulnerability and desperate longing to escape her life, and the steel to fight for something more. She just hopes the stamps have some value to dig her out of the financial hole that is her mother’s estate.

The fly in the ointment is her step-sister Mary, wonderfully played by Chloe Sullivan, who left the family when Jackie was young, never to return until her mother’s dying days. The stamps are her paternal grandfather’s, so she claims the inheritance on sentimental grounds and would never sell them. Mary seems to be all sweetness and light, in sharp contrast to Jackie’s broken bitterness, but when it comes to the stamps, she reveals a steely side that is not quite so sisterly.

When the crusty stamp shop owner Phil, played by Chris Shroff, cannot be bothered to look at the stamps for less than a $2,000 consultation fee, Dennis, played by Eric Rozell, agrees to take a look. Rozell plays the perfect sleazy hanger-on, the kind of guy who is always just there, on the periphery, looking for a moment to take advantage of someone. We see on his face that he knows there is something good in the collection — the “Mauritians” of the title — something worth money to someone. And Dennis is the type of person who will make sure he gets his cut, morals be damned.

Dennis stalks Jackie, following her to her home, where he gets in the middle of a domestic squabble between Jackie and Mary. From there the plan is to set up a deal with Sterling, played with brooding, menacing, gangster-like entitlement by Ed Seymour.

Rebeck doesn’t bother us with an abundance of details. Sterling makes his money in a “murky” way. How much are the stamps worth? No one ever says. Why is Jackie damaged? Does it matter? How much is offered and how much is asked? That would tip one’s hand too much.

Johnson has taken another risk that pays off. The actors, being college students, are technically young for the parts, yet Johnson resists the urge to age them up with make up. When Phil talks about brooding over an incident eight years in the past (also never explained) we just believe it, because Shroff completely inhabits the character. How old is Sterling? Old enough to make a lot of money because Seymour is Sterling so we believe it.

This is as good a production as I have seen in 25 years of watching Lamar theater. If this was a professional show I would feel that I had got my money’s worth and then some.

From the set to the direction to the acting, this was a professional production. My only complaint is the short run. This production deserves more than four performances. There was a good crowd Friday and I hear Thursday’s opening night was a sellout. These students deserve more than the ridiculously short runs. If there was a second weekend I would certainly see it again.

“Mauritius” is an absolute gem, and you can’t “lick” it.

The show runs through Sunday, Oct. 8 at 2 p.m.