Indications that we were getting tired became obvious by this point; I chose for a quiet day when L. went off to explore the Brontë residence. She came back with pictures and historical information that complemented insight into the Brontë sisters’ writing and settings, but a little miffed that not enough attention was payed to the moors. At the mercy of a guide who has an established route, L. saw the few dales and moors that were probably not part of a protected park, so some of the land, which was once barren in the 1800s, has since ruptured in some areas- carved up under the bulldozer and built up by a cement mixer. Not to be deterred, she booked another mini tour through the North York Moors National Park the day before our departure from York. I tried finding a different way into the park – by a city bus that would just get me into the park and from where I could find a trail that would take me through the moors, but the city buses from York only drove to outlying cities, from where one can easily walk to the desolate, barren, heather covered moors, if you can manage walking hours and hours and maybe a day or two without any rest stops, water stops or bathroom breaks. The Cleveland Way, for example, is a round the park 190 km walk that allows for camping along the trail, and the Heritage Trail goes down the east coast for a good day or two hike. There are smaller hikes and walks that provide a 5-7 mile walk around perimeter cities and which go into the park, but only into forests and fields and around Abbey ruins, and I feel I’ve done enough of those. On top of this inconvenience, a bus with its numerous stops would take at least an hour and a half or two hours, one way, and then there was the Saturday schedule to abide by, which has the last bus leaving at 2 pm. I decided not to decide at all, as we were still two days away from Saturday, and York was waiting to be discovered.
York is the only city in England with the most of its old city wall still standing and intact, and no doubt proud of this fact, has built a walkway along the interior side of it, which, from morning till dusk one can access and walk the 3.5 miles around the old city to take in the views above the red tiled rooftops, with York Minster Cathedral spiraling out from the center from any point along the circumference. Not contiguous, the wall can be accessed in segments, and we chose to take the stairs down by the Botanical Gardens and St. Mary’s – yep, you guessed it – Abbey ruins. Overhearing a guide speaking to his huddled flock, Judi Dench made her debut acting performance here using the Abbey as a backdrop, and as happens when one has become attuned to something new, suddenly sees the relevance in other areas one looks: there is Dame Dench Street, and a Dame Judi Gin drink which L. and I discovered on the menu when we did a serendipitous drop-in at a pub called the Evil Eye, whose concoctions were too irresistible to pass up. (I had a rhubarb and tart apple gin and tonic drink, with a slice of ginger dropped in; L had a sweet berry mixture.) But back to the gardens: the park is small, if comparing to a St. James or Hyde Park, but has flowers and plants along its borders and also expanses of grass which can be lounged and picnicked on, and according to L. who went through a few days later, was crammed with people out craving the now warmer days and who used nearly every cubic centimeter of the grass to enjoy it. The Botanical Gardens cozy up to the River Uose, which wiggles underneath the old town and back up and around it, so we decided to walk along it until we reached Clifford’s Tower, the second highest point after the bell tower of York Minster, from which a 360 view of York can be commanded. And not only views were commanded here. This used to be York’s stronghold, and kings, lords, and landed gentry at the time used this tower as a residence. Two museums located just at the foot of this tower were once the jails that housed the debtors and criminals and traitors and all of those whose innards and heads would be staked along York’s old city walls and bars – the Viking word for gate. The Shakespeare Rose Theater is also now at the foot of Clifford – a very strange name for an ancient castle – which was getting ready for a Friday night, sold out performance for Hamlet.
From Clifford’s Tower, which we opted not to pay 6£ for an unobstructed view, we walked north and into the old town, which was packed, from store front to store front, with restaurants, take away food, ice cream, fudge, souvenirs, pubs… well, anyone who has been in a European old town can simply visualize it and know that York is really no different. Each street has a best voted for something on its storefront, the aromas of fried fish and chips, chocolate and beer spill out from alleys, and the culinary choices are tantalizing if not unfair; How can anyone decide? The best fish and chips or a roast beef Yorkshire pudding? The pork and black pudding pie or the steak and kidney pasty? The cheese and onion quiche or simply a slab of trucked in Yorkshire cheese on stone ground sourdough bread? Or should one go for the desserts instead, cake upon cake in scaffolded display cases, chocolate orange, almond and cherry tart, espresso and chocolate, red velvet and sweet cream cheese layers? Using temperance and common sense, I became adept at a type of “window shopping” but with food, something that I have since called “dream eating.” Naturally, not wanting to leave England without practicing the joy of eating from its many fine purveyors, I decided to have at least one of each item that my thoughts returned to after 24 hours, or what appeared as a product for articulation on the Great British Baking Show. Using this approach, I felt my experience and not my waist would be nicely rounded. So in the course of my wanderings, in London, in Wales and through England, I savored some of the “best”s: Lebanese lamb and mint pockets, Lebanese blended lentil soup, a falafel wrap from a middle eastern man’s food truck, Welsh mutton pie, Welsh fish and chips, lentil and cheese pie, a ground mushroom and cashew wrap, a lamb gyros, steak and cheddar cheese pie, a soft, white cheese and onion pasty, a pork and black pudding pasty (blood sausage), at least one portion of fries with salt and vinegar, Yorkshire pudding, Welsh pudding, Welsh cake, cherry and almond tart, honey and pecan fudge, chocolate and cappuccino fudge, chocolate cake, and orange liqueur cake with chocolate frosting. If I am forgetting anything, it probably had a pie at the end of it. Needless to say, all of the pasties and pies cum larde had me then craving for raw vegetables and every other day or so, during a grocery run for breakfast items and things to eat at home, I bought a bag of loose leaf spring greens, ripped it open, and ate them all straight from the bag, munching away like a goat out to pasture, without dressing of any kind. Not subsisting on pasties alone, the Waitrose grocer we found throughout England, as well as the Tesco, offers a great soups selection, and puts together unique salad combos like I would do at home, so we were well covered, whatever and however we chose to eat.
The quandary of what to eat is one thing, but hydration is another altogether. Learning how to keep hydrated when you’re in a place that does not give out free water freely and without knowing where the next bathroom is only requires a bit of logistics and smarts. If you drink a large 75 cl of water in one full swig as if it were a meal instead of a martini, then you can predict far better when you will need to use the toilet. An hour or so after this full bottle throttle, find yourself a WC, or predict where one will be before the anticipated need arises. We found bathrooms free of charge in coffee shops, museums, on boats/ ferries, an antique shop, grocery stores, train and bus stations, churches and abbeys, ruined or not, tourist info buildings, behind the isolated bush, and even busy pasty cafes, which may confuse you with paying patrons, and may or may not have a sign “for patrons only.” You can always buy 50 pence worth of fudge if you are conscientious about such things. Once business is taken care of, don’t forget to fill up the water bottle from the cold tap at the faucet which you’re using anyway to wash up, as soon you will be thirsty and will have to buy water for an amount greater than for that pint of beer you are probably thinking about already. You are now all set and can rehydrate like above and repeat the pattern. If you think you can do without water you will become really tired and lose the stamina and energy and humor it takes to navigate and walk all day, and deal with unexpected joys of travel.
And so eating and drinking our way through York, we came finally to the grand York Minster cathedral, to which anyone attending evensong any weeknight at 5:15 receives free entry. Evensong is a 45 minute singing of prayers by the choir, and this one was particularly beautiful. Their voices were lifted to the top spires, and their singing was as beautiful and as perfect as can be. It was an extremely inspiring and uplifting experience. Only a small organ for accompaniment, and two intermittent readings from the deacons accompanied the prayer.
And so York city was rather wrapped up for me, this time in the journey when one old town looks just like another, and with our last day looming, we returned to the apartment. I brought back out the bus schedules to the North Moors Park, and each destination offered nothing that I was exactly looking for, and the amount of time I was willing to ride for it became less and less compelling. As I studied maps, timetables and the internet’s fickle advice, an inspiration struck me: I would just chuck the whole idea, stay “home” and find a neighborhood yoga studio, where the thought of some good intensive stretching and relaxation was just what I needed. I would get all the pictures and info from L. when she returned from her mini tour trip.
The next morning during our breakfast, we seemed to need more coffee than usual, the intake of which has been steadily increasing, at least for me, ever since I weaned myself down to a cup of instant every other day in Wales.
“I think maybe you should go on this tour in my place. I’m just too tired. I don’t think I’ll make it,” L. admitted in all earnestness. Quite adept now in understanding each other’s cues and intentions, I knew she meant it, and because of my sound night of sleep I felt good enough to be driven around for the day. I would go in her stead, and pay her back in the currency of her choice.
And so off I went, with a full water bottle to meet the guide from BoBH mini tours (I have a thing for guessing acronyms – and made an obvious, correct assumption of the Best of British History) and soon I and 14 others were whisked off in pleasant comfort. Letting someone else do the planning and driving and informing, every now and then, sure is worth it.
A moor is an expanse of land that is so acidic trees cannot grow, but on which heather thrives. As a result, vast swaths of seemingly barren land can look indeed like a wasteland, but are actually covered with three types of heather: Ling, Bell and Cross Leaf heather, which when not in bloom mainly in July and August, cast their evergreen shade of murky brown across the landscape, causing wide areas to look unappealing and desolate. In between the crops of heather, which don’t grow higher than a foot, grow little stubby grasses, which the sheep, who are allowed to roam freely here, love to snack on. The moors do not comprise the entire North York Moors Park, but share with it dales that while retaining their verdancy, dip into valleys and hills on which green grass and trees and farmland is possible. Why a dale should end and a moor begin rests only on the soil, and the geological impact of the great ice sheet from the ice age, from which the Moors National Park was cut and formed.
Created as a national park in 1952, England thought it high time they follow the rest of the world’s great ideas and create one of their own. This was also a time of the post WWII industry boom, and people had a right to escape the growing, crowded cities and get away for a while into fresh air. So that the park would maintain its natural appeal for all to enjoy for many years to come, restrictions are placed on landowners, prohibiting solar panels built onto the land (roof top panels allowed), wind farms, and chain stores. They must keep the land as sustainable and natural as possible, and tour groups are limited and are not scheduled every day. The Park’s three main industries are dairy farming, sheep farming for wool and meat, and deforestation, as a way to monitor the land’s health and prevent wildfires.
90 different breeds of sheep populate the globe, and the UK has 30, 18 of which are in the North Yorkshire Moors Park. The Swale Dale sheep has white fleece and a black face with white around the eyes and black hooves. Both male and female have horns that curl towards the back of the neck and then around to their jaws. This sheep produces wool for rugs, which is coarser and denser. The Chipion sheep is all white, no horns, and its wool is used for clothing. I will not go through the remaining 28 kinds, as our guide was kind enough to recognize most of us were not here for sheep education, except for some useful info for the next pub trivia night. The farmers paint the backs of their sheep a certain color to mark ownership, and when they need to round them up with a dog and call them in once a year to sheer them in July, or for a routine vet check up, or for slaughter time, they will be easy to recognize whose sheep are whose.
Closer to the moors, now, we learn of another event that happens every year in the park besides sheep sheering, this one a bit more international: a Tour d’Yorkshire, a four-day bike race throughout the moors and up and down the dales. Hosted the first weekend in May, the 120-mile-per-day race starts every year from a new village but will always take the riders through Sleights, known for its 2-mile, 25% graded uphill chug. The first day of the race is a ladies only race, and the last three are open to all. The light blue and yellow colors, with which riders will decorate their bikes, stand for the Yorkshire flag and Jersey Island, respectively.
Once we pass Huttson, the oldest settlement in the park, dating between the 16th and 17th centuries, the landscape changes suddenly from dale to moors, and from one turn to the next we are in the barren moors of Brontë fame, spotted here and there with the purple ling heather flowers that have bloomed early. Had the weather not wantonly turned warm and sunny just on that day we would have been able to see the fog rolling around and making distances and objects hazy to apprehend and time wistfully nostalgic. Taken in conjunction with the Brontës’ difficult lives out there in Haworth, the preacher father, the very early death of their mother, the early deaths of two sisters, a brother on drink and laudanum, Charlotte and Emily being sent out as governesses, and that cold and wind and barren existence, no wonder the family read extensively to bide the time; no wonder a little romance was in order through the characters in their novels; no wonder Heathcliff was such a boorish, unpleasant personality, living out on the moors.
We stop for a photo op at a particularly lush, blooming crop of heather. It has no scent, as one imagines it might, like a bush of Greek oregano or lavender field will have, but offers just enough beauty to hold its own. I recognize now these flowers and miniature bushy bundles from the top of my Catsbells summit hike; soft to the touch and resilient to the foot; they are hardy to survive in this scant sun climate.
After a ten minute pause here, to stretch and appreciate the long awaited for moors and heather, we hop back on the van and head to the coast for Whitby, the very real town that Bram Stoker sensationalized in his book Dracula. It’s here from the cliffs, that our guide tells us, that Stoker sat (with world famous fish and chips?) and created the idea for his book. Veering away from the crowded Whitby mews and alleys below, I climbed up to the Abbey ruins and old cemetery, found a bench and the beautiful breeze, and imagined him looking out to the North Sea in a veil of fog at the merchant ships coming in from foreign lands, navigating into the bay and through the breakwaters. The ship he may have seen (it just takes one for the imagination to roll) was the ship that sailed by itself, rolling in without a soul on board save a lone wolf, who jumped to land, morphed into a bat, flew into Lucy’s window, and sucked her blood. Maybe old Bram was on the laudanum himself. The cemetery, whose lopsided tombstones are so weathered by the sea air and water mist have become indecipherable, looms large over the harbor, above on the cliffs, and would provide a very eerie, accurate mood to the mysterious settings and symbolic elements present in the story. After spending an hour and a half up there, walking along the cliffs and sitting at a look out, I walked back down to town, which was cram packed with people and noises more ghastly than any gothic story. I found a toilet behind the tourist center, refilled my water bottle, and waited at the appointed spot for the tour to resume.
The next stop on the tour was in the middle of the national park, to a train station called Goathland, where filming was done for, once again, Harry Potter. This was the station to which H.Potter was transported to after getting on the train from London. (That fictional platform 9 and 3/4 is incidentally London’s King‘s Cross tube station.) We stayed until the old steam locomotives came through and stopped, one pulling passenger cars from the 1950s, the other from the 20s and 30s, all in original teak wood. The first trains used this track, from Whitby all the way to Pickering, a town along the south edge of the park, to deliver the goods, fish and wool, brought into Whitby by ship. Steam and rails replaced the coach and horse, and now the highway and truck have replaced the train. The rail is currently provided by the National Trust, operates solely for tourism, and is run by volunteers alone.
By this time, I have absorbed as much as I want to and can, and tune most other information out. We pass Howard’s Castle, which is an Edwardian stately home, which still has a real Howard ancestor or two living in it, and then we stop one more time at a little village where a British show “Heartbeat” was filmed for over ten years, but I meander through and pay little heed, contemplate an ice cream but am deterred by the lines, and meet up with the tour guide, who tells me a little bit about his own experiences with back packing across the world.
We head back. I feel that this trip has been both informative and enjoyable, challenging and instructive in so many ways. Good travel is supposed to do that, and that’s why I keep traveling – to keep learning. Tomorrow I return to London, where it all began 5 weeks ago with A., and from where it will be a good place to conclude this journey and these writings, as it is where it all started.