Thursday, August 21, 2014

2 Splendid English Churches

Saint Mary the Blessed Virgin Church, Eastham Village, England

One day during our time in Manchester, England we took a train to the nearby town of Chester. From there we took a local connecting train to the village of Eastham. We were in search of a church with a memorial plaque and family grave for ancestor's of Lori's brother-in-law, Randy. In typical English fashion, the very moment we found the church it started pouring down rain. Luckily, an arch at the entrance of the church's pathway through their ancient cemetery provided us cover.

Saint Mary's the Blessed Virgin in Eastham Village is a splendid little church with a great deal of history: parts of the church's stone construction date to the 12th century, and it replaced a "mud and dauble" Saxon church that had stood for centuries before that. The baptismal font, in fact, recycles a Roman column, so the Saxon church possibly stood on the site of a Roman temple.

Other than the fact that the church was a welcome change of pace from the massive churches we typically seek out in our travels, we found the church's cemetery fascinating. Often we've practically itched to walk around in a cemetery while traveling, but seldom have we had the chance to do so. Among the markers of Saint Mary's we found that of Randy's ancestor and others dating to the 1600's.

By contrast, that afternoon when we returned to Chester we toured the (comparatively) gargantuan Chester Cathedral. This gothic structure is actually younger than the small church in Eastham Village, but as it's in the "big city" (versus Eastham) it gets considerably more attention. We took their "Cathedral at Heights" tour, a wonderful guided excursion up the main tower of the cathedral with stops in the bell tower along the way. The views were indeed spectacular, but the best aspect of the Chester Cathedral was its splendid cloisters.

Chester, England, by the way, is billed as "the most English of English villages". We only spent a few hours there, but it's definitely on our to-return-to list. Stay tuned for more blogs and pictures from Chester.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Around The World in 80 Days

Given the title, some of our followers might assume that we've set a new travel goal. While it is faintly enticing, we're referring instead to our recent night at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester to see the stage edition of the Jules Verne classic.

Most of us read "Around the World in 80 Days" in elementary school, but in case you didn't, or if you need a refresher: rich Victorian English eccentric Phileas Fogg makes a bet that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days, which he--with his manservant Passpartout--sets out to do. Of course today the world could be encircled several dozen times in 80 days, but in Fogg's day it meant steamship and rail.

I won't ruin the ending for you, but I'll say Manchester's stage production is true to the original story, though with a whole lot of great theatrics thrown in. The fun starts with the uniqueness of the Royal Exchange Theatre, a Sputnik-like construction built inside Manchester's former stock and commodities trading building. It is a theatre-in-the-round, with three steep levels affording every seat a direct view down onto the floor. It is an intimate setting allowing the cast to interact with the audience.

The "Sputnik-Like" Royal Exchange Theatre

The Floor of the Theatre

Theatre Panorama

The production takes jabs at itself and the theatre-in-the-round presentation in a couple of really clever ways. There are the ship props: sections of fence the cast brings out and sits next to, as if enjoying an afternoon on deck while the Arabian sea whiles away. As the actors sway back and forth invoking the rocking of the sea, other cast members sway the fence sections and tilt the tea table back and forth. In one scene the actors take the tongue-in-cheek imagination to a humorous exaggeration as they stand, rock, and sway their chairs all in one motion.

Then there are the fight scenes. When Passpartout enters the Indian temple forgetting to remove his shoes, he must fight his way past three offended natives to return to Fogg in time to catch their train across the Indian subcontinent. They throw punches from across the stage--nowhere near each other--but with coordinated movements and responses, accentuated with careful choreography, they make it work wonderfully. The fight scenes are accentuated with sound effects, often silly, and moments of slow motion highlighted by a dimmed change of lighting and crew manually manipulating items on the set--like chairs and a table being thrown into the air--to great effect.

Philias Fogg (L) and Passpartout (R) on their journey around the world

There are also the creative sets, from the opening scene of Fogg in bed (he stands, with one cast member holding a pillow behind his bed and two others stretching a blanked in front of him) to their crossing the gap in the Indian railway by elephant (a gray men's suit jacket is shaped so that one sleeve is the elephant's trunk).

While going 'round the world in 80 days hasn't become our new goal, it does seem appropriate that we went out of our way to see this play. We've had quite a few great moments so far in our travels, but this was a solid two-and-a-half hours of grinning ear-to-ear.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Just Take A Taxi!

A London Cabbie

Sometimes the simplest solutions are not only the best but the cheapest.

On our first trip to Europe, way back in 2001, we had just landed in Amsterdam and taken the train to central station. We had successfully navigated the tram system and been deposited in the museum neighborhood (Museumplein). According to our trusty Streetwise maps--this was long before we had Google Maps on our phones--our hotel was supposed to be right there. But it wasn't. We circumnavigated several blocks, exhausted and grumpy, getting more exhausted and more grumpy by the minute, until we found it. And then we had to scale three floors of stairs, but we'll leave that griping for another day.

Finally checked into our room, Lori looked at Chuck and pronounced, "Next time we take a taxi." It seemed a simple rule to make: whenever we arrive in a new place, just take a taxi to the hotel.

Pronouncements and declarations aside, it's surprisingly hard to follow your own advice sometimes. On occasion we actually have followed the rule, but other times we've been tempted by the apparent simplicity and obviousness of how to get to the hotel, museum, or wherever we're going. Admittedly taxis don't often seem the most cost effective option, and in cities like London or New York that might truly be the case. Why pay a taxi $30 to take you somewhere public transit can for $5? And of course we feel ridiculously guilty for taking a taxi three blocks for a fare of $3 (here you go, mate, now your mum can have that surgery she's been needing).

On the other hand, consider your time and effort--the cost of being exhausted and grumpy, basically--and paying that cab fare starts to make a little more sense. Just a few weeks ago, once our day in Toledo Spain was up and we were ready to head back to the train station, we set off on foot down the hill. We had hoped it would be a lovely walk down, laden with photo opps. But we were repeatedly thwarted by road construction. It was Chuck who invoked the rule this time, and we hiked back up the hill and took a $5 cab ride down to the train station.

On another occasion in Florence, we would have loved to take a taxi, especially since the place we were staying was a mile uphill outside the city, except that Italy was playing in a tournament soccer match that evening and every cabbie in the city had simply parked their cars to watch the match. We should have just rolled up our sleeves and joined one or two of them to watch the game, but it was late and we hoofed it. Uphill. A mile at least. But it makes a story worth telling.

Anyway, even if you think you know where you're going, and even if you fear paying the cabbie in change, if you're tired, hungry, or grumpy, just consider biting the bullet and taking a taxi.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A Century-Old Toilet

The Oldest Loo You Might Ever Use

When the John Rylands Library was built in the late 1800's, flush toilets were all the rage in new construction. It's not surprising then that the library's design included mens and ladies restrooms. With the same meticulous care devoted to their collection of books also dedicated to their toilets, the original toilets--now 115 years old--are still operating.

This got me thinking about the invention of the toilet. A quick turn to the modern-day store of knowledge that is Wikipedia (if it's in Wikipedia, it must be true) reveals that the design of the flush toilet evolved over centuries. Despite the myth that the toilet was invented by the aptly named Sir Thomas Crapper (perpetuated, no doubt, by Bette Midler with a certain song from the movie Beaches), more credit might be given to Sir John Harrington, who, in the early 1600's, published a paper (no, really) on a design that included a valve and bowl that allowed a washing action. He even installed a royal toilet for Queen Elizabeth I to use, but alas! she thought the modern contraption made too much noise. Without the royal "blessing", widespread acceptance of the toilet was delayed a few centuries.

Crapper doesn't even earn second place for the advancement of the toilet. That distinction would have to be awarded to businessman George Jennings in the mid 1800's. Jennings installed "monkey rooms" (I much prefer this term to bathroom, restroom, loo, or water closet, so I think I will attempt to revive it) at The Great Exhibition at Hyde Park. In true European style, he charged a penny for access. No doubt the extras he threw in, including a shoe shine, enticed many a wary Victorians to "give them a go".

The monkey rooms were a swooshing success, with thousands of Victorian men and women enjoying blessed relief and shiny shoes at the exhibition. After the exhibition, Jennings convinced the powers that be to leave the toilets, which earned up to £1.000 (that's one thousand pounds to you Americans) per year.

The highly over-credited Sir Thomas Crapper can really only be attributed with the invention of the floating ballcock valve, which remains to this day the frustration of millions of do-it-yourselfer plumbers. Another crucial component of the modern toilet--the siphon action of the water in the bowl--was invented by Albert Giblin, though it was indeed Crapper who popularized its commercial use.

So the next time you are perched atop one of these modern marvels in your monkey room, remember all those ingenious men, even knights and titans of business, who have contributed to your being where you are today.

Simple Chain-Pull Valve and Gravity-Fed Water Line

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Imperial War Museum North, Manchester

Last Monday, our first full day in Manchester, England, was the 100 year anniversary of the start of World War I. We didn't plan it, it just worked out that way, so serendipity allowed us to participate in the lights-out moment all across Britain. The War To End All Wars, of course, didn't actually start on a single day. It was more like a storm gathering force and spreading around the world, touching different countries at different times. This was the centenary of Britain's entrance to the war.

Shortly after the war's end, the British government founded the Imperial War Museum to collect artifacts and stories from the war. The museum's efforts have continued to this day, resulting in both a museum system across Britain, of which the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester is a part, and an impressive collection of materials from armed conflicts for the past century.

This was likely the most moving museum experience we have ever encountered. It seems a challenge to accurately present the horrors of war without either glorifying it or politicizing it. The only way to do it is just to tell the historical facts, which the Imperial War Museum North does exceedingly well.

A Display of British Home Guard Artifacts from WWI

A German Trench Mortar from WWI

Two things struck us during our visit. First, that the World Wars were a much different experience for Europeans than it was for Americans. This wasn't really news to us, of course, and we know that war is totally different when it's conducted in your own backyard. The American sacrifices were indeed high, and we don't mean to diminish that fact, but the difference became clear, became entirely poignant, as we read about how British parents sent their children out of the cities and to the countryside where they would be safe. Our parents were children during WWII, and we remember their stories of rations and relatives sent across the oceans to fight, but absent from their stories were tales of children fleeing American cities to survive. For England, it was the last line of defense to ensure the future of their nation.

The second observation to strike us during our visit was that war requires a commoditization of human life. Millions of people died in each of the world wars, millions more were affected, millions more displaced. At no time is the price and value of life more cheap than in war. Yet millions of soldiers volunteered to pay the price because they believed there was--or is--something even more valuable, something worth dying for.

It's this equation, this concept that there are some things worth dying for, that gives strength to the survivors: the parents, the spouses, and the children left behind.

Gerry Judah's "The Crusader", Sculpture at the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester