We hadn't originally planned to visit Chester; but at least 3 different people we met, hearing that we planned to drive from north Wales to York, told us that we must visit Chester. Chester, they all said, had a magnificent Elizabethan downtown shopping district, with beautifully preserved black-and-whites still in use. So we stopped at the Chester park-and-ride and rode the bus in for a quick tour and lunch, despite the fact that it was raining cats and dogs when we got there.
Chester really does have a magnificent Elizabethan downtown; it's more interesting because it isn't exclusively Elizabethan. It's been updated in all periods, including Victorian and modern, and somehow it all fits together. But the black-and-whites: they're fabulous. Some of them are four stories high, each story projecting out a little farther than the one below, in meticulous repair. The shopping district has a long section of adjacent black-and-whites where the first two stories are in use as stores and restaurants, and you can get to the second story from the city wall, which is also still in use (as a walkway, not a defensive perimeter). It stopped raining after we'd been there about 10 minutes and we walked around, had lunch on the second floor of a black-and-white (in a regrettably modern sandwich shop, but the 1638 Boot Inn a couple of doors down looked like a little more than we had time for). We thought we'd found a restored Roman garden by the city wall (Chester was a Roman camp), but it turned out to be someone's idea of what a Roman garden would have looked like if the Romans had used the masonry fragments that the gardeners had to hand.
We also toured the Chester Cathedral. This isn't one of the major cathedrals like York or Canterbury, but it's impressive in a brooding way: it's all made of a dark red stone, which looks even darker when it's wet. We walked around it on the city wall, and came back out to the shopping district through the cathedral close, which is still in use for offices and so on (and strictly Georgian in architecture, except for the medieval gateway). We went in and took the audio tour; the first religious foundation on the site was a Saxon church, founded in 907 to hold the relics of St. Werburgh. After the Norman conquest, the church was turned into a Benedictine abbey beginning in the late 11th century. The abbey church was turned into a cathedral by Henry VIII after he dissolved the monastery. Chester Cathedral contains a room that was used as a consistory court (trying cases of ecclesiastical law) into the early 20th century and could still be so used today if the Chancellor of the diocese chose.
However, we had to get not only to but past York by evening, which meant passing both Manchester and Leeds in the late afternoon. We met some very heavy traffic but had no serious delays. It was a little disconcerting to come off a ramp from a major motorway to a lesser road, and find ourselves staring straight ahead at about 5 huge cooling towers for a nuclear power station, but then, the British do that.
We didn't stay in York proper; we stayed in a one-pub village called Stockton-on-the-Forest, about 10 miles from York on the Scarborough road, and rode the inevitable park-and-ride bus into the city. York has been inhabited since the Romans (who called it Eboracum and used it as a major administrative center); in our touring we saw an excavated Roman bathhouse, the Jorvik exhibit of the town in the Viking period, and, of course, York Minster. We had lunch in a building that dated to the early 14th century; we were on the 3rd floor (I think; I lost count of the stairs we climbed), and the floor tilted out toward the windows so sharply that when my husband tried to get up from the table, he almost fell over. York has a street called The Pavement; I found this extremely confusing until someone explained that it was the first area of the town that ever was paved, and was used in the middle ages for public announcements.
The word that comes to my mind for York Minster is "light". The stone is light, the building is even more full of light than most cathedrals. I noticed that everything in the Minster looked fresh, as if it had just been restored; in Canterbury, many statues and tomb carvings had bits knocked off, but everything in York Minster looked beautifully kept. Of course, some of it was almost new; they had a ghastly fire in the early 1970s which took out the entire South Transept, and they had to rebuild that section almost from scratch. But they did it to match the rest of the building.
I found what I thought was an absolute jewel in a side chapel: one wall panel was painted in almost perfect 14th century trompe l'oeil style, with a man walking down a street next to a building, and inside the building a man in bed, and everything just so to show the perspective, because they were just learning to draw that way. The guide book, which I read later, was a major let-down: the panel was painted in 1930 in memory of the 1st Marquess of Zetland, and based on the background of Crivelli's Annunciation. Drat. But it's still gorgeous.
I chose to explore the crypt, which was laid out to show the Roman and Viking and Norman foundations, the history of the site, and the church treasury. I passed on climbing the tower, which was the equivalent of 19 stories high. My husband climbed it.
God help the York householder who wants to expand his basement! The Roman bathhouse was discovered when a pub owner wanted to do just that, and the pub now runs an archaeological museum downstairs. Seeing the Roman bathhouse reminded me that the Romans really lived very like us: they had centrally heated houses with hot and cold running water, they bathed in public baths with hot, tepid, and cold plunges, and they had indoor bathrooms with running water (and sponges taking the place of toilet paper) which flushed into a central sewer. (Of course, the sewer dumped into the local river, but you can't have everything.) And three hundred years after Rome fell, people lived either in wattle-and-daub huts or stone castles; the heat in both dwellings was a firepit in the middle of the floor, venting through the roof; people bathed once a year, maybe; and I don't even want to think about what they did when they "had to go". The Jorvik exhibit (which was aimed at getting 11 year old boys excited about archaeology) had a replica Viking toilet (with animatronic user) which was pretty crude. And all of this happened because of Christianity; the Christians assumed that if the godless Romans were cleanly, then there must be something ungodly about cleanliness. I wonder what daily life will be like 300 years from now; and if it does decline as life did after Rome, then what will cause it.
We spent one day touring York, and we probably could have spent more time. But by this time we'd been traveling for two and a half weeks, and we were starting to run down. Three weeks is about my limit for an extended vacation, and after that I want to go home and put my feet up. Have you ever noticed that vacation lodgings are short on places to put your feet up? I always end up sitting on the bed with pillows piled at my back. So after spending one day in York, we spent one more day touring the neighborhood.
We spent that last touring day on two sites: Castle Howard and Rievaulx Abbey. I'm not sure whether my husband planned it this way, but they represent the extreme developments of the religious and the secular ways of life in England.
Castle Howard was begun in the early 18th century by Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle, a major figure in the English government (First Lord of the Treasury), largely because he owned the land and he could. It actually took most of a century (and 3 Earls) to "complete". My main reaction to Castle Howard was stunned disbelief at the size and opulence. I can't find anywhere a simple statement of how many rooms the place has; I have to wonder whether they know. I've lived in apartments that were smaller than the Atlas Fountain. And the most stunning thing about the place is that part of the Howard family (but not, any longer, the Earl) still lives there, including two small children. Imagine raising children in a place filled with genuine Roman statuary (collected by the 4th Earl) and fine art (collected by the 5th Earl); for that matter, imagine trying to find small children on a thousand-acre estate. To give them their due, the Howards run the place as a non-profit trust, dedicated to preserving the art, buildings, and gardens; and the docents I talked to on the tour all seemed to adore the Howards personally. But as I look at pictures of the place, I still can't imagine brushing my teeth there.
If Castle Howard represents the epitome of the English aristocratic (secular) way of life, then Rievaulx Abbey represents the height of the medieval monastic movement. Rievaulx was founded in 1132 by Bernard of Clairvaux as the first, and eventually largest, Cistercian foundation in England. The Cistercians, at least in the 12th century, felt that the Benedictines were too rich, and corrupted by their proximity to towns, commerce, politics, etc.; so the Cistercians built their monasteries as far from all that as they could. Rievaulx was built on the Yorkshire moors; it's still a long way from anything, although there's a small town right near the site. All the Cistercians wanted was lots of land to raise sheep on (and other necessities of life; the abbeys were intended to be self-sufficient). Since they continued to expand their land and sheepholdings, and to sell the surplus wool, they too eventually became rich and corrupt; but that's another story. Rievaulx at its height had around 800 monks, a bigger population than many villages; and all that money from the surplus wool sales built a soaring abbey church, plus a large refectory, living quarters, etc. As with most monasteries, only the walls survive (and not all of those); the roofs tended to be made of lead, which was salvaged and reused by Henry VIII when he dissolved the monasteries. The windows were destroyed to salvage the leading, or simply broke; and the ruins were quarried for stone to build other structures. The site today is extremely peaceful and beautiful. It can also be viewed from a garden up the hill, Rievaulx Terrace, which was built by a local landowner in the 18th century, to give himself a convenient place to stroll and observe his "ruin," since the 18th century considered it very fashionable to have a ruin on the property. Some people went so far as to build fake ruins, but the owner of the property above Rievaulx, of course, didn't need to do that.
Rievaulx Abbey was the end of our touring. We had a final pub lunch in a nearby small town, and a last helping of banoffee pie; and the next day we set out for Staines, Heathrow, and home, an epic journey which I ranted about back in July. I hope you've enjoyed reading this as much as I've enjoyed writing it, which is unlikely. But thanks for staying with me, if you did; and check back from time to time, as I'm working on a photo gallery for my web site, and will note here when it's ready.