Every year, Edie Wolfe takes a vacation with her younger sister, Rosamund. Most of the time, they rent a cottage on one of the Champlain Islands in Vermont or travel up to Montreal, Quebec.
But this year is different because the two sisters decided to treat themselves to a long vacation in England. They’ve been talking about doing this for years.
Of course, Edie is writing emails home and sending pictures to her family and friends.
I thought you would enjoy reading them too.
I hope you enjoy today’s Carding Chronicle. Please share it with your friends.
Carding is a fictional town in Vermont that’s celebrated in four novels (so far). You can find links to them all after Edie’s description of her travels in England.
This week, Edie and Rosie are enjoying themselves in Falmouth in the cities of Oxford and Bath.
We arrived in Cheltenham (chelten-um) the day before yesterday for a two-week stay in the Cotswolds.
We’re at an AirBnB on the outskirts of the city, a 5-minute walk from a bus stop which is all the connection we need to make our literary excursions to Oxford (city of J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Dorothy Sayers, Philip Pullman, and Morse, Inspector Lewis and Endeavor all based on Colin Dexter’s novels), and Bath for my long-awaited Jane Austen communion.
A small word here about the British transportation system—I truly wish we had something like it (anything like it) in the States. Rosie and I did not want to rent a car because the person behind the wheel never gets to see anything, and there’s that driving-on-the-left-side-of-the-road thing that neither one of us wanted to tackle.
But here in the U.K., if you can walk to a bus or train station, you can get anywhere you want (just about). And the whole system takes folks with disabilities into consideration.
We’ve been in and out of Cheltenham a bit but our main purpose for staying here for an extended period of time is to take that bus in search of some of our favorite authors.
We started with our longest ride—to Oxford.
Rosie and I both love British television, inhaling all of the detective series that Masterpiece Theater makes available. So as soon as we trundled off the bus, we started scouting the landmarks we’ve enjoyed throughout the Morse series based on the novels by Colin Dexter, including the sequel, Inspector Lewis, and the prequel, Endeavour.
After wandering down the High Street (there’s a High Street in every town), we bumped into the Radcliffe Camera (camera being the Italian word for room) seen above and the bridge known locally as “the Bridge of Sighs” (see below). These structures appear in nearly every episode of Inspector Lewis, and that may be because they’re just around the corner from the White Horse Pub where many of the bar scenes for all three series were filmed.
Over the course of our two days here, we joined in the gawking masses making bets about which punters wending their way down the River Cherwell would make it under the bridge. We ducked into the botanical gardens where we discovered it was folk weekend and there were Morris dancers everywhere. (see below)
So many men sporting little bells.
After soaking in the stony beauty of this city, Rosie and I both sighed and said, at the same moment: “Gawd, I would love to go to school here.”
And I would, in a heartbeat.
Our feet were starting to hurt so we stopped in a pub which had this joyous Celtic music pouring out of the windows. It was packed so Rosie went to the bar to get us a couple of pints (yep, we are going native here) while I squeezed through the crowd to find us a place to sit.
We joined another woman who was nursing a half-pint and a book. I had to know what she was reading (of course) and before you know it, this native of Oxford launched into a long list of “you-gotta-see-this” sites.
The one that caught our attention immediately was Blackwells Books (see below) which is right next to the White Horse Tavern (see below below) where so many of the pub scenes in the Morse series were filmed. Blackwell’s is THE best book store I have ever visited in my life.
It should be designated a sacred site, that’s all I can say.
It doesn’t take long to realize why this magical city inspired the fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and Philip Pullman. With its mass of amazing and gracious stone buildings sliding into one another, it’s easy to see how this place inspired J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft. The quad in the center of the Bodleian Library is so big, you cannot take a picture of a complete wall without a fish-eye lens. There are gilded gates and church bells and gargoyles and statuary and spires and fascinating doors that you just want to walk through because you know they’ll go somewhere interesting.
Be still my beating heart.
After a day’s rest back in Cheltenham, Rosie and I were off to explore the stone city of Bath where Jane Austen walked and where she set my favorite novel, Persuasion.
As much as we enjoyed London, Rosie and I really get off on the smaller cities such as Greenwich, Oxford, and Bath more. You don’t need a map to find your way around because each one of them has a landmark or geographical landscape that functions as a guide.
For example, in Greenwich, all roads eventually lead to the River Thames. In Oxford, you look toward the Radcliffe Camera (tallest building) to get your bearings. And in Bath, the whole city is sloped—sometimes steeply sloped—toward the River Avon and the Pulteney Bridge that spans it (see below).
And yet you can get deliciously lost in small streets and walkways that always seem to lead to some place interesting.
If you’ve ever had an image of a shop-lined bridge in England, then the Pulteney will suit. It’s an ancient (by American standards anyway) charming walkway with shops on both sides and spiraling stone stairs that take you down to the river’s edge.
As you all know, I’m a longtime Jane Austen fan. When she was writing in the early years of the 19th century, Bath was the chic place to be. People believed that its warm, mineral-rich waters were good for their health. Soaking in them probably did do a lot of good but after taking a sniff of this stuff while we had tea in the Pump Room, I doubt anyone benefited from drinking it.
But I have to admit that in a world where leeches and bleeding were considered the leading edge of medicine, drinking a glass of awful water or soaking one’s body in a warm spring would seem like a pretty good idea.
The baths attracted people and where there are people with money to spend, entertainment and hospitality are sure to follow. That’s why Bath was the place to see the latest fashions, to hear the latest gossip, view the latest art, and listen to the latest music.
It’s also where the silly, vain, narcissistic Baron Elliot in Persuasion decides to go in order to flee his creditors. By going to live in Bath, Elliot believes he can live in a state of “reduced splendor” without anyone being the wiser. (When it comes to creating silly characters, no one has ever done it better than Jane, in my opinion.)
Persuasion is an elegant little novel told in exquisite detail with a heroine, Anne Elliot, that we’d all like to talk to over tea. Which means, of course, that my little sister indulged me by making our first stop in Bath at the Jane Austen Center.
To tell you the truth, it was wonderful and I learned more about Jane but I got a bigger kick out of walking around the city itself. Bath is the southern terminus of the Cotswolds Way, the 102-mile national walkway that starts in Chipping Camden (if you’re walking south). (If you look on a map of the Cotswolds, you’ll find the word “chipping” appearing often enough to be noticeable. I asked about it at a museum in the village of Broadway and found out that it means “crossing,” usually a river crossing.)
During Bath’s heyday, the best address to see and be seen was in the Royal Crescent, a splendidly curved row of townhouses built in the ornate Georgian style at about the same time that a bunch of colonists in a place called Boston were dumping tea into that city’s harbor. It is believed that this was the first curved building constructed in western Europe (see below). Still gorgeous, isn’t it?
We spent most of our second day in the Roman Bath Museum. Wow…just wow. The exhibits dig into what daily life was like here before there was an A.D. and how this place became the center of the city.
It still is, as a matter of fact.
Then we hopped next door to tour Bath Abbey before wandering back to the train.
We’re back in Cheltenham now. I’ll write more after we’ve been to Stratford-upon-Avon to walk in the footsteps of you-know-who.
You can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life and Lights in Water, Dancing.
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If you’d like to get in touch, my email address is: Sonja@SonjaHakala.com.