Thursday, November 20, 2008

Going Down to Durham Town

If I had a list of favorite places on Earth, it would look something like this:

  • Universal Studios

  • Any place where 5 or more of my friends have gathered

  • Granville in Fall

  • Venice

  • Durham

I can't explain why Durham despite a lot of my coworkers asking me 'why the hell Durham?' For most people, it's a stop on the train line between London and Edinburgh, or at the very least the last stop before Newcastle and one of those towns north of York. It's got a cathedral sure, but what else?

I'd be lying if I didn't say that the cathedral was a huge draw for me personally. A massive Norman edifice and the most well-preserved Norman cathedral in the country (in the world, likely) it shows the transition in architecture from Norman / Romanesque - the style that copied what the Romans built - to Early Gothic, the style that replaced it and is most commonly associated with European cathedrals. You can quite literally see the seeds of the transition in the building itself, as the early parts of the cathedral are pure Romanesque while the last parts have the barest beginnings of Early English Gothic architecture, where the techniques that would create the masterpieces of Canterbury, Notre Dame and Rheims were first tested.

Durham is a small college town and certainly has that feel; it's an English market town with its own high street, surrounded by coal country and has suffered with the rest of the North in this regard. But it's still a small college town and therefore has a certain vibrancy about it as well. The weather was perfect on this visit (I've been twice before): crisp without freezing, leaves still on the trees in a rainbow of colors and no rain at all.

I managed to wrangle a private tour of the cathedral which was great, and the reason (excuse) for our visit was to see Yorkshire folk singer Kate Rusby, whose amazing voice and kicking original songs I've kind of fallen in love with since Simon introduced me to her soon after I moved here. Here's a (professionally recorded) video of her live in Leeds:

The best part about Durham was simply getting away so easily and enjoying a great weekend together where we could just walk around in the gorgeous Autumn weather, enjoy a pint and put our cares away for a while. I have a feeling I might have to get back one last time before I go back to America.

Bonus: Kate's cover of The Kinks' Village Green Preservation Society (with stills from Jam and Jerusalem, the show for which she covered it):

Friday, November 14, 2008

Going North

On my way up to one of my favorite cities in the UK for a nice weekend away and a cool concert tomorrow night.

More with pictures later!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Remember, Remember

Yesterday was Remembrance Day in the UK, which we celebrate in America as Veteran's Day. In America it's celebrated as a day where you remember veterans of all wars, and there are parades but no one really pays a lot of attention. Any why is it on November 11th? I admit, I couldn't have told you until yesterday.

Here Remembrance Day is Armistice Day - the day that the Great War (World War I) officially came to an end. America kind of sat that one out until the victor was clear, but it devastated Europe in a completely unprecedented manner. We were taught the dates and details: Archduke Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Red Baron, trench warfare. But it was always something that happened at a distance - a great distance. Here it was something that happened, well, Here. Right here. Every small town I've been to in the UK, even the tiny ones like Kettlewell, have a Great War memorial for the WWI dead.

They added names on after World War II.

I also noted there is still room for more names on many of the memorials.

Yesterday I saw something I've never seen before. The entire nation observes two minutes of silence at 11 AM on Armistice Day, to mark the exact time when the war ended. I've seen moments of silence before and typically people just kind of carry on with their business. Not here. Our entire office stopped doing what they were doing and we all watched the ceremony on the television, when one of the last three Great War vets in the UK laid a wreath on the memorial. Someone mentioned later he was 112 years old. He looked like he was about to cry. No one in our office said or did anything other than watching the television to see this happen, and our two minutes of silence lasted about five minutes in total.

It was sobering to see how deeply the Great War still affects people here. As the 'first modern war' it could (arguably) be said that it had the greatest impact on the 20th century because of the new technologies employed and the sheer mechanical savagery of killing others, and not only did it have a profound impact on European political structures but also on the attitudes of the people here. When people accuse the French of being dirty peaceniks, maybe the reason for that is that they have seen more than their fair share of some of the worst slaughter ever visited on other human beings.

It's certainly a stark contrast to America, that's for sure.

I'm still not 100% certain what yesterday meant to me, but it was one of those singular experiences that I will remember for a long time to come - which, I suppose, is the point.

Also, I have to point out Diamond Geezer's side-by-side poem from yesterday - it's quietly profound in its own right.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Happy Birthday to Meeeee....

Here's one to add to the 'achievements unlocked whilst in London' file: last weekend I turned 30 years young. Therefore, everything I blog after that is suspect and cannot be trusted. Young people: do not trust me!

All ageing jokes aside, I had a most excellent birthday. The Beautiful Competition booked a surprise trip outside of the Big Smoke, although not that far: just into Kent, a small town called Whitstable, renowned for its seafood and laid-back attitude. We spent a couple of nights and did exactly nothing except for walking along the coast, eating scallops (oysters are not my thing) and enjoying local cheeses and ciders. The perfect, low-key way to get a year older.

I have to say that the people in Whitstable are probably the nicest I've found in the entire country (so far.) I'm not sure if it's because the town is off the normal tourist trail or what, but almost everyone we spoke to wanted to know where we were from, if we were backpacking, what we thought of the town, and seemed genuinely interested in chatting rather than the normal, tired faux-niceness you get in a lot of towns that make their living off of tourism. It was a refreshing change from some of the other places we've been. Maybe it was nothing more than we're acclimating a bit more and it's just natural to be here now, I don't know.

I want to call out especially the very nice family that ran The Cheese Box, who not only clearly love their job of finding and selling locally-sourced cheeses (the best I had was called 'Rachael's Goat,' so called because it came from - yes - Rachael's Goat) but let us linger around the shop, sampling this and that and recommending more deliciousness.

I cannot say where I procured it (I was, quite literally, sworn to secrecy by the person who gave me the bottle), but I did have some extremely good local farmhouse cider as well called 'Appley Ever After.' 'A Kent cider, barely,' I was told, although because of the location of the brewer and not the quality of the cider. I'm not a huge cider fan, but this stuff was amazing. Unfiltered and cloudy like a quality farmhouse cider, strong enough to knock out a rhino in large enough doses, and the absolute perfect balance of sweetness and tartness. Google doesn't turn up any websites for it online, but if you are down that way and happen to see some stocked somewhere, try it.

All of the pictures from Whitstable are on my Flickr stream.

Oh, and I get to go back to Yorkshire in a couple of weeks for a concert - and to visit one of my favorite small towns in the UK. Durham!