Category Archives: History

A satisfying break, with family

I’ve just had a wonderful two weeks — no, I live in the UK now; I’ve just had a wonderful fortnight — with a couple of family members who came to spend Christmas with me and see part of the UK. We spent four nights in London, then had two overnights on our way to three nights in Islay, then they spent five nights at my flat in Newcastle. It was kind of a whirlwind trip (planned by moi) but exciting and satisfying, and they said it was a very rich experience.

My visitors did a lot of the London touristy things by themselves; many of those were somewhat expensive and I had done them before, so (for example) while they went on the London Eye I sat in a cafe below and worked on my data coding. (Yes, I carried my laptop around London in my daypack/rucksack. What can I say? I’m used to carting it around Newcastle.) The day we left London we took a taxi to Heathrow Airport to pick up the car I had arranged for us to rent/hire (yes, I know it’s more expensive at the airport, but we had very good logistical reasons for doing this) and we headed west. We upgraded to a slightly larger car with built-in GPS/SatNav, and although I would have preferred a car about 6″/15cm narrower I was glad we had the GPS (which we ended up naming Synthea).

My personal highlight of London: Dinner with four long-time friends of mine, one of whom had never met two of the other three. My visitors enjoyed them all.

First day out of London: Stonehenge, lunch inside the Avebury circle, half an hour at Tintern Abbey, ending with an overnight in Stroud, complete with dinner & drink with a friend there. Stroud was slightly out of our way, but it’s a family name on my mother’s side and anyway it allowed my visitors to meet my friend.

Second day on the road: Liverpool, with a late lunch in the Beatles’ home stomping ground and a look in the Cavern Club. Overnight in a wonderful cottage in the Lake District. I’ll be back there again, I think.

Third day on the road: No substantial stops because we had at least five hours of driving and a hard deadline for the ferry to Islay. Synthea directed us onto a route that had two ferry crossings but that “she” said was quicker than the road route. After taking the first ferry (Gourock-Dunoon) we took the overland route the rest of the way because we weren’t convinced of the existence of the other ferry. Unfortunately, because we had taken the first ferry we missed seeing the beautiful and aptly named Rest and Be Thankful pass in the daytime. Oh well. We did stop a few minutes in Inverary to take a short walk so one of my visitors could photograph the castle. It was her first castle, after all (other than the Tower of London), and we weren’t going to see any in Islay.

We travelled to Islay on Caledonian MacBrayne’s beautiful new ferry, the MV Finlaggan. (It was new to me, anyhow; and it is only three years old, their newest one.) We arrived to find that the hotel had lost our booking (a mixup on their part) but they had other rooms available and we got profuse apologies and a decent price break. I had been hoping for a peat fire (the hotel’s website says they have one in their pub), but all they had was coal and nobody knew where I could find a peat fire. My guess is that it’s mostly the distilleries that burn peat any more, and all of those were shut down for the holidays. So I settled for buying a box of peat incense. I’ll have to try harder next time!

I had done all of the driving up to this point, as I was the only one with any experience driving on the left. But we had registered two of us to drive this car because my visitors were going to have to drive it back to Heathrow from Newcastle without me. So the other driver did all of the driving on the Islay roads. I thought it would be good for him to start there, as there are no roundabouts and most of the roads have only one lane anyhow. As I had suspected he would, he did fine. Fine enough to brave the roundabouts and the motorways and drive to Newcastle.

Maol Buidhe

I wanted to show my visitors all of Islay and a reasonable amount of its neighboring island of Jura (whence the Buie surname comes), but two and a half days simply wasn’t enough time. We drove most of the Islay roads, though, from Kildalton to Kilnave to Kilchoman (missing out Sanaigmore, Saligo, and the Oa, unfortunately), and we saw the Islay Woollen Mill, the Kildalton High Cross, the Cultoon Stone Circle, the Kilchiaran Chapel, the Kilnave Chapel and Cross, some prehistoric hut circles west of Gruinart, two places named “buie” (Tigh na Buie and Maol Buidhe), and the Finlaggan Visitor Centre, site of the headquarters of the Lords of the Isles from about 1350 to 1492. That last was especially meaningful for me because we were greeted by Donald Bell, who had showed me around Finlaggan on my first visit to Islay in 1987, which I think was before the visitor centre was even in the full planning stage. We went to Jura for an afternoon and had tea at the hotel, where they were just taking homemade shortbread and mince pies out of the oven. Mmmmmm! As we checked in for the ferry to return to the mainland, my visitors remarked on how great it was to be in a place where people hear your name and know how to spell it. :-)

On the way to Newcastle we made a short detour to Carlisle to have a look at the castle from the outside, and then we stopped by a Hadrian’s Wall site so my visitors could stand on the wall. It was a Wednesday and Birdoswald Roman Fort was closed, but the wall itself was of course accessible, so they stood atop it and I took their photo for Facebook.

We arrived at my flat the evening of Christmas Eve. On Christmas morning we slept in a bit (the first time since they had arrived) and made a pound cake. Then we went to Evensong at Durham Cathedral (one simply cannot visit the North East of England without seeing that magnificent building), and they found the service interesting and meaningful; then we came home and cooked Christmas dinner and skyped with some other family members. In their remaining days with me we did a lot of walking around Newcastle and visited several medieval sites (Tynemouth Priory and Castle, Warkworth Castle, and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne). We were disappointed that Newcastle’s Castle Keep is closed until the spring (renovations, the sign said), but at least they got to go inside two castles and see three others from the outside. And I introduced them to some grand British Christmas traditions — particularly, Christmas crackers and Fenwick’s window. They loved it all.

They left about 6:30am on Monday for the drive back to Heathrow. We were all concerned about possible contingencies, but they made it in good time and now they are safely back at home in the States. We all had a fabulous trip, and now I’m settled back into sorting out my data coding scheme and doing the analysis. Plus preparing several presentations, both for academia and for industry. It’s a good thing the long winter nights don’t much affect my productivity any more!

This was my third Christmas in the UK, and my first with family present. I found it very, very meaningful.

And you know, that fortnight saw me doing more of two things than I had done in the previous two years: driving, and saying “y’all”. :-)

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The appeal of the poppy

Self photo of me wearing my newly acquired Remembrance Day poppy

Wearing the poppy

This time last year, I was new here. I noticed that everyone seemed to be wearing a stylized paper poppy on their clothing, and I knew from visits to Canada during this season that it was for Remembrance Day (which in the US is celebrated as Veterans’ Day). Everyone stops what they are doing at 11am on 11 November (the time of the World War I armistice) and observes two minutes of silence. Churches do it on the Sunday. Remembrance Day began as a way of honoring those who lost their lives in WWI, the poppy symbol inspired by Lt. Col. John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields“. The commemoration, which has come to include WWII and more recent wars as well, strikes me as a gentle and somber way of honoring these people and their sacrifice. I especially like that it doesn’t seem to be politicized; as far as I can tell, people of all political persuasions wear the poppy and observe the two minutes of silence.

Royal British Legion's paper poppy

The poppy

This Sunday I’m going to be leading a service for the Stockton Unitarians (my usual one on technology and spirituality), but since the service is in the evening we won’t have the 11am two minutes of silence. The Stockton service does tend to include Joys and Concerns, though, so I will begin that by lighting the first candle in honor of Remembrance Day. As soon as this was agreed, I started thinking that it would be appropriate for me to wear a poppy.

Early this afternoon, on my way home from my semi-weekly frut&veg run to Grainger Market, I saw an old man in a uniform — a veteran himself, no doubt — holding a sign saying “Poppy Appeal” and carrying a box of the canonical poppies and a donation cup. So I put a pound into the cup and he pinned a poppy on my gilet.

I guess I’m all set.


(Image of poppy from Wikimedia Commons, used under that license.)

The Lindisfarne Gospels

Until I moved to Newcastle, I had never heard of St. Cuthbert. And it was only a few short years ago that I learned that Lindisfarne is not in Ireland. (It does sound like an Irish name, eh?)

Well, earlier this week I learned a fair amount about both. I visited the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibit at Durham University Library.

The Gospels, which normally live in the British Library, have been on display in Durham since early July and, as of this writing, will be there for one more week. The library has created a wonderful environment — historical, artistic, and æsthetic — for this illuminated manuscript that played a crucial role in religious history, not only of the North East of England but of Great Britain as a whole.

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne has an Irish name, it turns out, because it was founded by the Irish. A delegation of monks was sent there from the Isle of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland, where St. Columba had brought Christianity from Ireland to Great Britain in 563 CE. The community at Lindisfarne, led by Cuthbert, followed the Irish/Celtic rule, while those farther south followed the Roman rule, and both their customs (e.g., the style of tonsure) and their calendars differed. In 664 CE, King Oswald of Northumbria called the Synod of Whitby to hash out the matter and decide which tradition to follow. They decided to go with the Roman way, and Cuthbert commissioned the Gospels to integrate the two traditions. The Gospels’ art, calligraphy, and phrasing show features of both Celtic and Roman style, and the exhibit said the book was an essential part of St. Cuthbert’s effort to bring the two factions together. About a hundred years later the Vikings attacked Lindisfarne and the monks took their possessions (including the book) to the mainland. They lived in Chester-le-Street for a while and ended up in Durham, where Durham Cathedral now is.

This exhibit meant a lot to me because I have been to all of the places it featured (except for Chester-le-Street); and I am also familiar with the Roman style of art of that period because I’ve spent so much time in Italy.