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Introduction

These 40 essays, lists, recipes, poems, and songs cover my eleven trips to the United Kingdom and Ireland over 43 years. Perhaps I’ll go again, perhaps not, but I wanted to record what I could remember and while I had a quieter, less-traveled few years to write.

My first trip as a recent college graduate was in the summer of 1971 with my draft-dodging college boyfriend. The most recent trip was in 2014, with my writing buddy Kathy Herbert. Some trips were short, some were longer, the longest being a four-week visit as part of a teachers’ workshop in 1978. Sometimes a trip centered on a conference, such as the 1978 Infant School workshop in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, or the 2012 La Leche League of Great Britain Conference in Coventry, Warwickshire.

When relevant, I mention dates, seasons, or companions, but otherwise many trips run together in memory; thus, I simply alphabetized the essays, mixing chronologies and subjects. You’ll find an index in the Appendices.

Some UK visits were stand-alone, some were followed by trips to the continent. On some trips I hitchhiked, on some I traveled on buses and trains, on some I rode in a rental car. I’ve stayed in hostels, small hotels, bed and breakfasts, and private homes. Some were guided, some self-guided. Each trip had its own signature, its own financial constrictions, its own joys, its own special disasters. Why go to one area of the world so often? I am a recovering English major, plus language is everything to me, and English is that language.

Both my grandmothers loved to travel. Cora Pell Fruend sometimes traveled with her British lecturer friend Ada Ward who was part of the Redpath Chautauqua Circuit. Cora hosted Ms. Ward when tours came to Cleveland, Ohio. My grandmother Helen Burket Grossman urged me early on to see the capitals of Europe. She is also my only ancestor with English, Irish, and Scottish roots: ancestral Baileys, Burkets, Glenns, and Borlands are sprinkled throughout the British Isles and Ireland.

My weekly writing group—through Zoom and the Moab library’s meeting room—was a guiding star. Thank you, Diana, Heidi, Judy, Marcy, Susan, and Tory!

Many stories remain to be told, but binders can easily accommodate more memories, all appearing after the essays here are published, on my blog at kathygrossman.com

Future essays might reflect 2022 subjects such as the movie Emily, starring Emma Mackey as Emily Brontë, and how my consumption of scones is now limited to gluten-free recipes. Queen Elizabeth II died in September after reigning over the UK for all of my trips. Her son, now King Charles III, ten months younger than me, will now start appearing on banknotes. We’ll have to see how Wales and England do in the World Cup. Plus, three UK Prime Ministers have been in charge this year so far. Things change, but these essays and daily cups of PG Tips tea can still remind me of my own time in the English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish motherlands.

I have cherished these quiet, soul-filling hours of researching, finding photographs, and capturing memories. May my sons and grandchildren someday write their own histories, and I hope they enjoy and somehow benefit from the essays here. And perhaps I have made my grandmothers proud.

                                                                                    Kathy Grossman

                                                            Moab, Utah, December 2022

Beneath Ireland

The trip was all planned out. Our family would head off to Ireland for two weeks, rent a van, feel the tug of ancestral roots, visit megalithic dolmens and the Cliffs of Moher, eat big Irish fried breakfasts . . . and go caving.

As an experienced spelunker, I wasn’t afraid or claustrophobic, it was just that I didn’t want to explore a watery cave. I’d once come close to drowning while navigating a deep pool in a New Mexico cave years ago. So I had two demands: “Put me in a dry cave, and don’t leave me by myself.”

But here I was, hundreds of feet beneath Ireland, in stiff, canvas overalls and rubber boots, crawling on my hands and knees, sloshing through a foot of cold water behind Adrian, our slightly askew Irish guide. My sons had gone a different direction and were approaching us from a parallel cave passage. They would meet us at an agreed upon spot. They also had Adrian’s only map.


We had found Adrian through our hosts at the Doolin Activity Lodge, where we stayed on the last leg of our trip. Doolin is a village of 200 people on the western coast of County Clare, the Republic of Ireland’s least-developed county. Irish writer Sean O’Faolain called County Clare “a shaggy-dressed, hairy-faced, dark-eyed, rough-faced man of the road.” Shopping for woolen sweaters and sipping hot tea back at the lodge is starting to look like a better option as I watch Adrian drive up to meet us in the steady drizzle.

Shaking hands all around, he looks like a wizard out of Lord of the Rings, with his wild gray hair, bad teeth, and a certain glint. I’ve been around a lot of cavers, and they’re not entirely normal even on a good day. Eggs and beer for breakfast, cast-off Army-Navy gear, minimal personal hygiene, and a psychopathic love of mud suggest why spelunkers hover only around the edges of civility. I doubt Irish cavers are any different. Now, as our rental van shudders along, following Adrian’s truck through a knobby, gray landscape, civilization seems to be slipping even farther away.

We have entered the burren (“place of rock”), western Ireland’s fantastical limestone karst. The burren is a treeless, rocky moor that paves most of County Clare. Irish essayist Susan Cahill called it  “a sci-fi Metallica wasteland.” You walk among ridges that protrude like the ribs and vertebrae of huge, buried creatures. The sharp rock will slice your hands if you stumble. Neolithic drystone walls delineate ancient sheep pastures.


Leaning into his truck, Adrian the wizard drags out some lumpy duffels and dumps out overalls, boots, gloves, battery packs, and helmets. “You’re all adults, “he says. “You can pick out your own gear.” He then gives us a lecture on hydrology. Fluctuating water makes burren caves dangerous, especially during the rainy season, he says, but the recent dry spell and today’s weather forecast guarantee us predictable levels. We then trudge off to the mouth of Poll na Gollum, the longest cave in Ireland. “Gollum?” I say. “Like in Lord of the Rings?” I can’t stand the creepy Gollum character, but my Rings-obsessed sons are thrilled. The wizard shrugs. “It’s Irish for ‘Hole of Gollum,’” he says. “Tolkein used to do a lot of hiking up here in the burren.”

Poll na Gollum’s serpentine passageways are the best kind of athletic caving. You walk standing up, brace yourself against walls, only occasionally have to stoop or crawl, and confidently follow the river seams. My sons take an alternate passage while Adrian and I continue to a rendezvous point. All is going well until I hear what sounds like somebody dumping out buckets of rocks from above.


The waterfall is deafening. We reach a skylight, where a section of cave has collapsed and now water is pouring in. The wizard looks up at the cascade. “It’s more water than I would have thought,” he says simply. “I thought you said this was a dry cave,” I say. “This is a dry cave,” he says. “If it were a wet cave, we’d need diving gear.” After twenty feet of crawling and once the water in my boots has warmed up, I comfortably slosh behind Adrian.

We stop to sit on some rocks, waiting for the boys who are now fifteen minutes late for our rendezvous. The water in my boots is cooling, and I’m starting to shiver. The wizard digs out some Mars Bars from his pack. I usually don’t choose Mars Bars, but, when faced with the prospect of this possibly being my very last candy bar on earth, this one tastes pretty fantastic. (This was the English Mars Bar, with nougat and caramel covered in chocolate, no almonds.)

We turn off our headlamps, which is standard spelunking practice during breaks to conserve batteries or calcium carbide. We eat the candy in silence. Adrian then stands up. Well, I think he’s stood up since I can’t see a thing. He says, “Okay, I have to go check some measuring gauges, so I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He vanishes. Well, as I’ve said, I think he’s vanished. His sloshing gets fainter and fainter. I finish the Mars Bar and shove the crumpled wrapper into my overalls pocket, the foil crackling loudly in the inky silence.

I contemplate my hands in front of my face, which, of course, I can’t see; a fact that continues to astonish even with all my caving experience. As the minutes tick by, I contemplate my next move if Adrian is never to return. A very long ten minutes later, I hear voices. I switch on my headlamp. I hear the boys tell Adrian, “We made a wrong turn, so we decided to go back to the entrance. Then we just followed your map.”

We all drag through the cold, muddy stew like awkward, hulking ducklings behind Adrian, back to the drizzly twilight of the entrance and climb up the slimy cable ladder to the surface. Back at the vehicles, we peel off our sodden gear. I ask the wizard what his next spelunking adventure will be.

“Oh, I’m getting out of this muck!” he says, gesturing at the leaden sky. “In ten days, the missus and I are going to Crete for a week.” A wise wizard indeed.

Before Gutenberg

Viewing the exquisite craftsmanship of the Four Gospels of Kells

Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruptions in March 2010 caused all air traffic in the vicinity to be delayed, including my own flight back from Dublin to Salt Lake City. That delay allowed me three glorious extra days to explore the Irish capital’s cultural landscape, including Trinity College (Coláiste na Trionóide in Irish Gaelic), where I could examine some world-famous ancient Christian manuscripts. These illuminated manuscripts, now bound into books, attract hundreds of thousands of visitors every year because they represent an exquisite pinnacle of artistic calligraphy and illustration.

The Book of Kells, each page measuring 10 inches tall and 13 inches wide, was written in iron gall ink, purple-black or brown-black ink made from iron salts and tannic acids from vegetable sources. The “paper” was vellum, a specially prepared calfskin (scholars speculate it would have taken around 185 calves), in 340 leaves or folios and 680 pages. These were all trimmed and bound into four books in 1953.

Before they were bound, the “books” were technically the illuminated manuscripts of Kells, and, we might say more precisely, the Books of Kells. Thirty folios have been lost, though there’s always hope someone might find some or all of them in some remote peat bog. The books rotate for display in a glass case in the college’s Treasury, a specially darkened shrine at the east end of the library.

Scholars believe that at least four different artist-monks wrote and illustrated the New Testament’s gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, in Latin. The Hiberno (Irish)-Saxon decorative style first appeared in the seventh century, blending curvilinear motifs and elaborated initials of the Irish-Celtic tradition and Anglo-Saxon representation of animal forms and gods of animal form. The style is characterized by geometric designs, large areas of color, and complicated, interlaced patterns. So, with all these amazing illustrations, is it a book or is it an art object? Some scholars say the transcription of the Gospels is uneven, missing words here and there, and it does seem that the illustrations are the star attraction. However, it was likely its cover that started the back-and-forth of its history.

The cover, or so-called “treasure binding,” encrusted with jewels and decorated with gold leaf, was separated and stolen by “raiders,” so you won’t see the originals at Trinity. The manuscripts may also have been kept in a cumbach or decorated wood box (a replica is shown at left). Thieves apparently ran off with the cover and discarded the manuscripts. Trinity visitors will see the bound manuscripts. After several trimming and binding efforts over the centuries,

Only in 1953 did English conservation bookbinder Roger Powell, working in Trinity’s Old Library along with assistant Pamela Fowler, bind the folios into the present four books.

From the Kells’ handwritten and painted project which began in 740 AD on Iona, fast forward to 1436, when Johannes Gutenberg, a German goldsmith began working in secret on a wooden press in Strassburg, Germany (now Strasbourg, France). Paper was pressed onto inked moveable metal type, making it possible to mass-produce books relatively inexpensively. After printing, decorations still had to be done by hand. Gutenberg’s press could manufacture large numbers of bibles for relatively little cost for the first time, greatly contributing to the spread of literacy throughout Europe.

The Gutenberg Bible (a page is shown at left) was the earliest major book printed using mass-produced moveable metal type in Europe. It marked the start of the “Gutenberg Revolution” and the age of printed books in the West. Printing technology was adopted around the world by the end of the 19th century, displacing manuscript and block printing.  But this tale only describes the Western path to literacy. Printing manuscripts and books has a much longer history.

In China, five hundred years before Gutenberg (and around the time of production of the Book of Kells), printing techniques involved chiseling entire pages of text backwards into a woodblock, applying ink, and pressing paper against the block. A Chinese artisan, engineer, and inventor Pi Sheng developed a system of individual character types made from backed clay and glue. Later, in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty, metal moveable type was used to create the “Jikji,” a collection of Zen Buddhist teachings, was published in 1377.

European handwritten books and illuminated manuscripts such as the Kells Gospels could only be made one at a time, taking countless hours in studios lit by the sun or candles, tallow and beeswax being common candle material. The most famous ancient handmade book in the Western world is the Book of Kells.

In 563 CE, St. Columba and 12 companions founded the monastery on the tiny island of Iona, a part of the Inner Hebrides on the west coast of Scotland. Iona is a half-mile wide at its narrowest and 3 ½ miles long. The Iona Abbey’s monastic school of learning helped spread Christianity throughout much of Scotland and northern England. It was here, scholars believe, that the Book of Kells was begun. Columba himself died on the island in 597 AD. Some speculate that work on the manuscripts began as a memorial to the 200th anniversary of his death.

Unrelenting Viking raids and the slaughter of 68 Iona monks at the abbey in 806 AD forced the remaining monks to flee to Kells, County Meath. A bay on Iona, Martyrs’ Bay, commemorates the slaughter. The White Strand of the Monks may be a renaming of the same bay. The Catholic Church’s feast day (an annual religious celebration, not a particular meal) for the monks is January 12.

At the height of the English Reformation in 1654, when the Church of England broke away from the Catholic Church and the pope’s authority, Oliver Cromwell’s occupying cavalry “the Ironsides” was stationed at the Kells Abbey. An alarmed Catholic Church smuggled the manuscripts to Dublin and then on to Trinity College for safekeeping in 1661.  The books remain one of the most spectacular pieces of Insular [Island] Art ever created: an elaborate fusion of Celtic and Christian cultures.

The National Trust for Scotland now works with Iona’s tenant farmers who raise oats, potatoes, and barley with largely traditional methods. Taking the 10-minute ferry ride from Fionnphort, Mull, visitors can enjoy Iona’s several hotels and restaurants, including Martyrs’ Bay Rooms B&B.

The room at Trinity College was cramped with tourists, slowly shuffling around various display cases, but that one special little book was the star, dimly lit, unpretentious. But, knowing the Book of Kells history and recognizing its painstaking artistic process, it was glorious.

Note: Gaelic is a Celtic language divided into Manx, Irish Gaelic (Gaeilge nah Eireann), and Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig). Manx and Scottish/Scots Gaelic are offshoots of Irish Gaelic, brought in the 400 and 500s across the Irish Sea by merchants and monks. Irish Gaelic, “Irish” in Ireland, is Ireland’s official language and is taught in all its government-funded schools.  In Scotland, English is the official language. Gaelic being recognized as its founding language of Scotland but is officially a minor language. The official language of the Isle of Man is English, though sometimes it’s called a Manx dialect of English. (See also “So, the Isle of Man is a British isle, but it’s not in the United Kingdom?” in the Appendices.

There are thought to be sixteen Celtic languages throughout history, but only six are still spoken today: Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Breton, Cornish, and Welsh. Many Nova Scotians also speak a form of Scottish Gaelic in addition to English and French. I heard French when I lived in the Halifax area (1995–1997), but I don’t remember hearing Gaelic. Gaelic culture, however, was everywhere, from the céiligh (KAY-lee, which means “visit”) to tartans, crafts, food, and music, especially from fiddlers Ashley MacIsaac and Natalie MacMaster.

The bee-loud glade

But there I was in remote and gusty western County Clare

Picking my way along the glaciated limestone pavement of the burren

Stepping over the vertical grykes, block to block, clint to clint

Remembering lines of escape and solitude from Yeats*

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;

I’d felt the sense of self-sufficient hermitage, the greasy clay in my hands

Pulling and cutting wood into wattles in four-foot strips

Daubing the clay in my slimy hands, adding straw

Forming the inverted basket of a small cabin, a hat of a home.

Nine bean rows will I have there, A hive for the honeybee, and live alone in the bee-loud glade.

But, what glade could be loud with bees?

The burren’s deep cracks filled with turf and tiny, brave flowers

Looking for a place away from the men

Tired of the watching and the following and the accommodating

Just then dreaming of my own aloneness in a bean-and-honey paradise.

At last looping back to the family

Down through a long, grass-choked ravine, threading down one glade                         

And suddenly there were bees                               

Thousands of them, streaking with me, above me, alongside, past me

Humming, whirring, buzzing, so incredibly loud

Celestial bee-loudness like a great vibrating harp.

And me, the incredulous English major, American, alone,

Stock still in a bee-loud glade, no longer just words in a poem,

My ears blasted by Yeats’ Irish thunder.

burren: a limestone karst        clint: slab of limestone pavement     gryke: fissure

* You can hear William Butler Yeats himself read this at   youtube.com/watch?v=hGoaQ433wnw

See also “Beneath Ireland”

As I was going to St. Ives

On my trip to England in 1997, I was enthusiastic about visiting the town of St. Ives in Cornwall. I wanted to walk down the path to the little village just like the man in the Mother Goose riddle my mother had read to my brothers and me so many years ago. I had also read that St. Ives was an artist’ colony. So, as we rattled along the hedge-lined motorway to the northwest coast of Cornwall, I envisioned myself poking around quaint little village shops and tiny art galleries.

Nothing could have prepared me for the congested resort town of St. Ives. Rows of grey granite apartment buildings with sober slate roofs sloped down to a wide, boulder-strewn beach, muddy from the recent ebb of the tide. The nursery rhyme riddle hadn’t say anything about a beach! Stiff from the drive and grumpy from the shock, I shouldered my day pack and headed down the hill with the family. This was not what I’d expected.

We bring many things to our travel experiences, some expressed, some hidden deep in our childhoods, schooling, and culture. My vision of the little town where I would meet a man with seven wives, seven sacks, seven cats, and seven kits turned out to be a popular, crowded beach resort with Walls ice cream stands, New Age gem and mineral shops, and loud shuttle buses carrying vacationers back up the steep hills to their tour couches. And I had to look hard for those art galleries.

But isn’t this one of the reasons we travel? The unexpected. The new experience. The correcting of misinformation. The dashing of old visions of reality? I thought again about the nursery rhyme.

As I was going to St. Ives, I met a man with seven wives.

Every wife had seven sacks, every sack had seven cats, every cat had seven kits.

Kits, cat, sacks, and wives, how many were going to St. Ives?

How many make a journey anyway? When it comes right down to it, it’s just you.

See also “Seaside Resorts” in this collection and YouTube’s “Sherpa Channel” with owner Jamie and his beloved Siberian husky Sherpa who wander out and about St. Ives.

And I’ll have the Spotted Dick

Spotted dick is a traditional British pudding made from mutton fat mixed with other ingredients, such as baking soda, flour, molasses, corn syrup, or nutmeg. You add raisins or other bits of dried fruit to this dough and you have “spots.” The dish is steamed, boiled, or, as in the recipe below, baked, and served with custard sauce.

Like Scottish haggis, Spotted Dick is kind of a joke food, especially to Americans. Like haggis, you can also find Spotted Dick in a can (Heinz), making it a not infrequent gag gift (again, especially for Americans). Unlike haggis, though, in this American’s opinion, Spotted Dick is really quite delicious.

Why such an unappetizing name, then? “Dick” has been described as an abbreviation for dictionary, a policeman, an apron, a riding whip, a corruption of the “ding” in pudding or “dough,” a referral to the German dich (“thick or viscous”), and, lest we avoid it, male genitalia. Americans will usually most certainly turn up their noses at ordering something with that last meaning. After all, at least US restaurants offering bulls’ testicles have the decency to label them Rocky Mountain “oysters.”

But the Spotted Dick I ordered recently was really just a sweet little spice cake with lots of raisins. As I happen to really like spice cake and raisins, I was enthusiastic about this dish at the friendly King Edward Restaurant by the sea in Weymouth. The waitress took my order with nary a smirk.

The “dick” itself was a lovely, hot-out-of-the-oven spice cake baked in a small mold, drizzled with caramel sauce, and accompanied with a pitcher of creamy, yellow custard. I lovingly poured custard all over the dick.

I could have further forced the whole issue by ordering Spotted Dick at Moby Dick’s, a pub that’s down the street from the King Edward. But back home in Moab, Utah, they couldn’t even name a new mountain bike trail “Moby Dick” (in reference to the nearby Whale Rock formation) because of the innuendo. Here are the ingredients and directions if you’d like to try this at home.

Ingredients

1 ¼ cups unsalted butter                       ½ tsp salt

1 ½ cups sugar                                     1 cup sour cream

2 whole eggs                                        1 cup currants

3 egg yolks                                          ¼ cup sherry

2 tsp vanilla extract                              ¼ cup rum

2 ½ cups flour                                      icing [powdered?] sugar

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 °F.

2. Line two 8” round pans with parchment (or grease with butter)

3. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

4. In a small bowl, soak currants in the sherry and rum. Set aside.

5. In a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar.

6. Add eggs, egg yolks, and vanilla. Once combined, then add flour mixture and sour cream.

7. Remove bowl from stand mixer and fold in soaked currants.

8. Fill pans with batter and bake for 30–40 minutes. Check after 30 minutes with a toothpick.

9. Cool and sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired. Serve with custard.

I’m not at home to bake one of these, but every forkful that evening at the King Edward was cinnamon-and-nutmeggy, sweet, and succulent. By whatever name, you can’t really go too wrong with a custard-smothered slice of cake.

And I’ll have the Spotted Dick

Spotted dick is a traditional British pudding made from mutton fat mixed with other ingredients, such as baking soda, flour, molasses, corn syrup, or nutmeg. You add raisins or dried fruit to this dough and you have “spots.” The dish is steamed or boiled and served with a custard sauce.

Like Scottish haggis, Spotted Dick is kind of a joke food, especially to Americans. Like haggis, you can also find Spotted Dick in a can (Heinz), making it a not infrequent gag gift (again, especially for Americans). Unlike haggis, though, in this American’s opinion, Spotted Dick is really quite delicious.

Why such an unappetizing name, then? “Dick” has been described as an abbreviation for dictionary, a policeman, an apron, a riding whip, a corruption of the “ding” in pudding or “dough,” a referral to the German dich (“thick or viscous”), and, lest we avoid it, male genitalia. Americans will usually most certainly turn up their noses at ordering something with that last meaning. After all, at least US restaurants offering bulls’ testicles have the decency to label them Rocky Mountain “oysters.”

But the Spotted Dick I ordered recently was really just a sweet little spice cake with lots of raisins. As I happen to really like spice cake and raisins, I was enthusiastic about this dish at the friendly King Edward Restaurant by the sea in Weymouth. The waitress took my order with nary a smirk.

The “dick” itself was a lovely, hot-out-of-the-oven spice cake baked in a small mold, drizzled with caramel sauce, and accompanied with a pitcher of creamy, yellow custard. I lovingly poured custard all over the dick.

I could have further forced the whole issue by ordering Spotted Dick at Moby Dick’s, a pub that’s down the street from the King Edward. But back home in Moab, Utah, they couldn’t even name a new mountain bike trail “Moby Dick” (in reference to the nearby Whale Rock formation) because of the innuendo. Here are the ingredients and directions if you’d like to try baking this cake at home.

Ingredients

1 ¼ cups unsalted butter                       ½ tsp salt

1 ½ cups sugar                                     1 cup sour cream

2 whole eggs                                        1 cup currants

3 egg yolks                                          ¼ cup sherry

2 tsp vanilla extract                              ¼ cup rum

2 ½ cups flour                                      icing [powdered?] sugar

1 tsp baking soda

1 tsp baking powder

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 350 °F.

2. Line two 8” round pans with parchment (or grease with butter)

3. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

4. In a small bowl, soak currants in the sherry and rum. Set aside.

5. In a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugar.

6. Add eggs, egg yolks, and vanilla. Once combined, then add flour mixture and sour cream.

7. Remove bowl from stand mixer and fold in soaked currants.

8. Fill pans with batter and bake for 30–40 minutes. Check after 30 minutes with a toothpick.

9. Cool and sprinkle with powdered sugar if desired. Serve with custard.

I’m not at home to bake one of these, but every forkful that evening at the King Edward was cinnamon-and-nutmeggy, sweet, and succulent. By whatever name, you can’t really go too wrong with a custard-smothered slice of cake.

Almost safe in Dover

When can you let down your guard when you travel? In your hotel room? On public transport? At passport control? When you’re in a group? Never?

The tea was hot, the cream seemed fresh as I shared my digestives with Alec, the terrorist. I’d been waiting for him in the Dover tea shop for twenty minutes, and now we sat huddled in a booth, our backpacks slumped against the wall. We poured tea into cups and ate the sweet, graham-crackery biscuits like grateful refugees.

I was glad to be back in an English-speaking country. In Salerno, Italy, I’d seen the headline, “E MORTO IL PAPA!” It was August of 1978 and Pope Paul VI had just died. People would be rushing to Rome and St. Peter’s Square; it was time to hightail it home. Alec stroked his teacup, keeping his eyes on the table.


“Did you have some trouble at passport control?” I said. “You were so late, I . . .”
“Yes, I had a lot of bloody trouble at passport control. The buggers strip-searched me.”
“What are you talking about?” I’d never heard of strip-searching.


They’re British, and I’m from Belfast, so they thought I must be carrying a bomb. I had to take off all my clothes, and they fingered me all over. That’s what I’m talking about.”

He pulled another digestive from the wrapper and snapped the biscuit in half. The tea shop was quiet. Alec sat chewing. The street down the hill to the ocean was dappled in sunlight. People lay on the pebbly beach on huge, striped towels. A phone rang in the back of the shop.

Days before, back in Paris, I was heading for London when I’d met Alec in the sweltering Gare du Nord waiting room. It was midnight, and a knot of sullen Algerian laborers slouched in the other chairs. They never spoke, never seemed to close their eyes, just watched us. The next train to Calais wouldn’t leave for seven more hours, so we took turns using the bathroom, guarding each other’s seats and packs. Alec brought me rolls and coffee without asking, me falling all over myself with thanks like he’d made Christmas dinner.

Alec poured another sugar packet into his tea.
“They asked me if I’d gotten a leg over you,” he said.
“Who did? Whose leg?” Couldn’t he just speak normal English?
“The bloody policemen. They asked if we’d had sex.”

I gripped my cup and looked away. The cops must have watched us as we left the boat and separated at passport control. I’d been so relieved to leave Paris, get on the train, and return to England. I’d finally felt safe. I’d counted on Alec to keep me away from the Algerians at the train station. Now it turned out he was the one who needed protecting. When are you finally safe out on the road? I suddenly didn’t want to travel anymore: no more politics, police, popes dying, former colonials raging, differentness.

Alec looked up at me, his eyes red, humiliated, furious. “My next trip out,” he whispered, “ I bloody will be carrying a bomb.” It was a statement too big for either of us. We finished our tea, staring out the window, the shop phone ringing again with no one answering. We stood and murmured goodbyes. He shouldered his rucksack and headed for a bus to Brighton, where he said he knew somebody. I cinched the straps of my backpack and headed for my train to London. A cop watched us.

All that walking!

A sculpture of three women stands outside a home in a small village on the edge of western England’s Haworth moor. Diane Lawrenson’s life-size bronze sculpture group portrays the Brontë sisters, Anne, Charlotte, and Emily, occupants of that surprisingly creative family parsonage.

Haworth, according to the Brontë Society1 web site (bronte.org.uk), says that Haworth back in the 1800s was a “crowded industrial town, polluted, smelly and wretchedly unhygienic.” Haworth has since cleaned itself up and now [2011] features charming stone buildings and cobbled streets, tea shops and bakeries, tourist trinket shops, and parking areas for the bus tours. Once outside of town, however, the surrounding countryside can be a muddy mess, especially in mid-November when I visited.

And all that walking! My traveling companions and I hiked many miles throughout the Haworth area, following paths across the moors to the sisters’ story inspirations. One was a ruined farm named Top Withens that supposedly was Emily’s model for her only novel, Wuthering Heights.  Perhaps someday I’ll also hike around Ponden Hall, which the Brontë Society says more resembles the Earnshaw home in the novel.

I first read Wuthering Heights in Mrs. Wadham’s high school English class in 1965. Brontë’s novel forced me to raise my head above the emotional trenches of teenaged complacency, and, as I peeked out onto the soggy Yorkshire moors, steeped me in the ancient themes of poverty, sexual tension, obsession, despair, and ghosts reuniting on a desolate crag. The drama grabbed me by the throat and shook me. Ponden Kirk, a crag of siliceous sandstone and the apparent inspiration for Penistone Crag in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights.

There was also plenty of actual drama in the Brontë family. Emily, Charlotte, and Ann Brontë, their brother Branwell, and their parents lived frugal, malnourished lives in the parsonage in Haworth. The mother Maria died of uterine cancer at age 38, and her first two daughters died, Elizabeth at age 10 and Maria at age 11, from tuberculosis. Then, after a series of setbacks, Branwell sank into depression and died at age 31. Tuberculosis, laudanum, opium, alcoholism, and hanging out at Haworth’s Black Bull pub all played their parts.

All of the Brontë children died young. Emily died at age 30 from tuberculosis (but also, some say, from anorexia2), and Anne died a year later at age 29. Of all the six Bronte siblings (five sisters, one brother), Charlotte lived the longest, succumbing at age 38 after her nine-month marriage to parish priest Arthur Nicholls3 and complications of her pregnancy. Their father outlived all of his children by six years, dying in 1861 at age 84. Yet the sisters’ novels survived. Jane Eyre (1847), Wuthering Heights (1847), The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), and Agnes Grey (1847) continue to inspire and bother. Movies, musicals, ballets, societies, festivals, and spoofs4  also keep the Brontë name alive.

The original Irish family surname was O Pronntach, Prunty, Brunty, or Bronty. The spelling was changed and the diaeresis (umlaut) added over the terminal E after Patrick’s family left Ireland. A Bronty family story of an adopted foundling in Ireland and star-crossed lovers seemed an almost exact plotline for Wuthering Heights. Anne and Charlotte also used Brontë family lore in their stories, originally published under men’s names (though with identical initials) Currer (Charlotte), Acton (Anne), and Ellis (Emily) Bell.

What role does companionship play? How important might the presence of other people be to a writer? Would the parsonage vibe have been like you were living in isolation with your writing group? How important was it that none of the Brontë girls married? (Though Charlotte was married for nine months after her sisters had all died.) Would controlling husbands have forbidden their wives’ writing careers?

Learning the Brontës’ story made me think a lot about isolation and great longing, lousy weather and productivity, encouragement, creativity, and lots of time. But then, there are other women in other cultures and times who shared and faced many, if not more, of the same conditions and issues.

Does it make a difference if you are in England or Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan? Or in a small village with long winters or a large Midwestern city with sticky, horrid summers? Feeling trapped but compelled to record it all can be common, but perhaps having others living with you who are similarly talented and trapped is part of the formula.

Or were the Brontë sisters simply all introverts who quietly enjoyed the imaginations of their siblings, spurring them on? Would it have mattered if their mother and two older sisters had not died? The three surviving sisters seemed plagued by malnutrition, self-care challenges, misogyny, and a longing for normal relationships and useful work. Their aunt had left them an inheritance that in large part supported their writing careers. Yet what could have been if they had actually been able to make a living as writers? And were able to eat properly? And maybe bought some proper cloaks, woolen hats, and waterproof boots for all that wind and mud?

Movies about the Brontës:

The Brontë Sisters. 1979.

To Walk Invisible. The Brontë Sisters. 2016. British film made for TV.

1   The Brontë Society seems to have split into two factions: the modernizers and the

conservatives. Each faction vies for the soul of the Brontë legacy.

2   Sarah Pearce offers a feminist reading of Brontë novels, examining anorexia, food

refusal, female fasting, and gaining control through not eating. Pregnancy can be

affected by anorexia and lead to dangerous complications.

3     Nine years after Charlotte’s death, Nicholls returned to Ireland and was married to his

cousin Mary Bell for 42 years. He maintained control over Brontë family

manuscripts and memorabilia until his death from bronchitis in 1906.

For a delightful and irreverent YouTube treat, watch The History Girls do some Brontë

sister interactions at    The Brontë Sisters. COFILMIC

Index, N-Z

N

Nazis. Going to Guernsey

Northern Ireland. Is Ulster the same as Northern Ireland? in Appendices

novels. All that walking! and Literacy through Mills & Boon

O

oasis. The bee-loud glade, Cream tea in Bettys Tearooms, and Scone by jammy scone

occupation, Nazi. Going to Guernsey

onion gravy. Dressing, among other things, the English “chip”

opening times. Breakfasting at Starbucks when abroad. Really?

Oxford. Jack Kerouac and Jack Mormons at the Beatnik Café

P

Paddy’s Lament/Lamentation. An Gorta Mór

passport control. Almost safe in Dover

pastries. Cream tea in Bettys Tearooms, Jammy Dodger Dictionary, Scone by jammy scone.

Peter Rabbit, The Adventures of. Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Beatrix

pianos. Meeting at St. Pancras Station

pie. Going to Guernsey, Jammy Dodger Dictionary

Plath, Sylvia. When shades of grey outnumber the green

plein air. When shades of grey outnumber the green

poetry. Curtains, When shades of grey outnumber the green

Poll na Golum (Hole of Golum). Beneath Ireland

Pope Paul VI. Almost safe in Dover

potato famine. An Gorta Mór

potato peel pie. Going to Guernsey

Potter, Helen Beatrix. Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Beatrix

printing. Before Gutenberg.

prison reform. Show me the money

pub grub. Jammie Dodger Dictionary

publishing. Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Beatrix

pudding. And I’ll have the Spotted Dick and Jammy Dodger Dictionary in Appendices

Vintage Harlequin and Mills & Boon Romance NovelsQ

Queen Budica. Hostels then and a later then

Queen Elizabeth II. Introduction and A Jane Austen cup of tea

R

racism. Feeling very American at John Muir’s birthplace

Rascal, Fat. Cream tea in Bettys Tearooms

Renoir, Pierre-Auguste. Going to Guernsey

Ring of Kerry. Nibbling Ireland

rising. Merthyr Tydfill

romance novels. Literacy through Mills & Boon

Romans. Hotel is in a great location

Rowling, Joanne Kathleen (“J.K.”). Scone by jammy scone

S

safety. Almost safe in Dover, Scone by jammy scone, Seaside resorts

St. Ives. As I was going to St. Ives

St. Michael’s Cathedral, Coventry. The Coventry Blitz

Sargeant, John Singer. Gassed

scones. Breakfasting, Cheeky Rascals, Cream tea, Nibbling Ireland, Scone by jammy scone

Shakespeare, Anne Hathaway. Cheeky Rascals and To be or not to be Anne

Shakespeare, William, Cheeky Rascals at Church of the Holy Trinity, To be or not to be Anne

Shelbourne Hotel. Scone by jammy scone

ship burials. Heart attacks at Sutton Hoo

Sierra Club. Feeling very American at John Muir’s birthplace

spelunking. Beneath Ireland

Spotted Dick. And I’ll have the Spotted Dick

Starbucks. Breakfasting at Starbucks when abroad. Really?

standing stones. Going to Guernsey

Stratford-upon-Avon. To be or not to be Anne

strip-searching. Almost safe in Dover

suicide. When shades of grey outnumber the green

surfing. Donegal, Ireland’s forgotten county in Appendices and Seaside resorts

Sutton Hoo. Heart attacks at Sutton Hoo

T

Tavistock Abbey, Devonshire. Cream tea in Bettys Tearooms

Tay, Loch and River. Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Beatrix

tearooms. Cheeky Rascals, Cream tea in Betty’s Tearooms, Nibbling Ireland, To be or not to be Anne

teddy boys. Cream tea in Bettys Tearooms

terrorism. Almost safe in Dover

Todt workers. Going to Guernsey

News – Page 5 – The Library of Trinity College Dublin: News & AlertsTrinity College. Before Gutenberg

U

Uffington, Berkshire. Standing in the eye of the White Horse

Ulster. Is Ulster the same as Northern Ireland? in Appendices

V

Valentino, Rudolph. When shades of grey outnumber the green                 One of the books of Kells

Van Gogh, Vincent. When shades of grey outnumber the green

W

Wales. Merthyr Tydfill, Appendices

Ward, Ada. Introduction

Weymouth, Dorsetshire. Seaside resorts

White Horse of Uffington. Standing in the eye of the White Horse

women, position of. A Jane Austen cup of tea and To be or not to be Anne

World War I. Gassed, Movies and television dramas of World War I

World War II. The Coventry Blitz

Wuthering Heights. All that walking! and Literacy through Mills & Boon

X

Y

Yeats, William Butler. The bee-loud glade

York. Cream tea in Bettys Tearooms

Yosemite. Feeling very American at John Muir’s birthplace

Z