Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Peak District

17 May Downsdale Cottage, near Buxton, Staffordshire
After a rather long day yesterday, firstly picking up the new vehicle, playing Follow the Leader - in London traffic on a Monday morning - as we both headed to the van drop-off point, then negotiating the Motorways north from London to our rented cottage in Staffordshire, we hit the road again today, heading for York. While the little hire car is far easier to manage on the country roads than the van, we have to remember to bring everything we need for the day with us when we set out. Sounds obvious we know, but when you are accustomed to having everything with you, as you do in a campervan, it does require a little more planning. And the car has no toilet!

For probably only the second time in our whole trip, we awoke to a miserable rainy day, just what one would imagine for the Midlands. Undaunted, we set off for York, just over 100 kms away, as the crow flies. After more than two and a half hours, we finally arrived. Such is the reality of driving in the UK! At least the day had cleared up and we enjoyed an abbreviated visit to York Minister and a stroll through yet another grand English mansion, the Treasurer's House.
On our return trip, we diverted to the small Yorkshire town of Holmfirth. Not too many Australians would consider a visit to Holmfirth a necessary part of a tour of the UK. But then not too many Australians are fans of the classic UK TV series, “Last of the Summer Wine”.

In it's heyday, Holmfirth was a fairly ugly Textile Mill Town, processing the local wool clip. The dark mills are mostly gone, but the cottages of the mill workers still line the steep cobbled streets. Even without the association with a favourite TV show, the town would have been well worth a visit.

For those who aren't aware, and that would be most, “Last of the Summer Wine” is the longest-running comedy series on UK TV. Put simply, it is the day-to-day adventures of three retired men from vastly different backgrounds, who fill in their days roaming the streets and fields of a typical Yorkshire village, circa 1960. Many's the time we have passed three elderly gents sitting chatting on benches in towns all over the world, smirking to each other as we hum (or whistle) the theme song from the show. So it is easy to see why places like Sid's Cafe and Nora Batty's house are almost sacred sights to us.
19 May Downsdale Cottage, near Buxton, Staffordshire
Yet two more cathedrals and a classic country house.
Coventry, as most will remember, was fire-bombed during the Second World War. What is left of the Cathedral stands today as silent testament to the evil of war. Most of the central city was destroyed in that one attack. The new city had little of interest for us, so we exploited our National Trust membership again to visit Little Moreton House near Stoke-on-Trent.
On the way we dropped into Lichfield Cathedral, attracted,, mostly because it had the head of Saint Chad. Disappointed again! No head to be seen. All we discovered was a small brass door, behind which the head of Saint may have lurked. We were devastated. Those who have read our earlier blogs would know about our quest for the body parts of Saints. To date, our favourite is Saint Stephen's Hand in a glass case in Hungary.
Little Moreton House was a fairly original 15th century manor house, with warped timber floors and that crazy, bent-house look. The National Trust Membership has been fantastic for us. As lovers of history, we have visited a dozen or more sites, saving our initial membership fee many times over.

Have you ever sat and watched a paddock of sheep a month or two after spring lambing? Don't answer that question if it disturbs you at any level!!

As we sup our fine European beers in the sunny twilight here in Staffordshire, we overlook a whole hillside of black-faced ewes and their lambs. They are just hilarious. Lambs at this stage of their development must be learning flocking behaviour. Every evening about 6:00pm, they start to tear around the fields in 'gangs' of ever-increasing size. They head for the highest point available to them and cluster there looking lost, until one of them spots another vantage point and leads the 'gang' off in that direction. Now and then 'mother sheep' calls out and her young 'uns wheel off and drop back home for a quick feed. Does it remind you of real life, as much as it does for us?
After a hard day's sightseeing, it takes very little to amuse us.
20 May
Downsdale Cottage, near Buxton, Staffordshire
Buxton is our closest large town. We have driven through it a couple of times in the past few days. But today we stopped and had a walk around. It's a beautiful little town, with its opera house, 19th century gardens and pavilion and huge, domed university hall that was once a charity hospital. Billed as the northern Bath, Buxton is just as advertised. Smaller, less pretentious, but with much of the same Georgian charm.

Hanging about for a week or so in an area like this allows us to explore many of the lesser known places, off the tourist track. Eyam is a case in point. This tiny village has remained fairly unchanged since the Plagues of the mid 1600s devastated much of Europe. When the plague hit the village, courtesy of bolts of cloth imported from London, the local cleric persuaded the villagers to quarantine themselves, to prevent the spread of the disease to adjacent villages. Of the population of about 800, 300 died. Many of the 'plague houses' from the 17th century still stand on the main street. As does the parish church where plague victims are buried, including the wife of the minister. Miraculously, he survived.
21 May
Downsdale Cottage, near Buxton, Staffordshire
Hit the big smoke today, Manchester, the home of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century. We were a little tentative about driving into such a big city, even though it was Saturday. No problem, though. Good roads and a couple of 'better than average' navigators, one electronic and one human, made it a breeze.
Manchester fell on hard times from the 1960's on, as competition from lower wages competitors in Asia forced the closure of much of its industry. Times were tough for a couple of decades, but the city has turned itself around. Redeveloped industrial areas are now home to great attractions like the northern base of the National War Museum and the fantastic Museum of Industry and Science. Both are fairly much a 'boy thing', just like the two iconic fields a stone's throw from the War Museum, Old Trafford and Manchester United's Headquarters.
It could be that we are a bit cultured out. But the Manchester Art Gallery was just a but ho-hum. We have developed a real taste for the French Impressionists and their collection was more than a bit light on. How pretentious is that!!?
22 May
Downsdale Cottage, near Buxton, Staffordshire
Off to London tomorrow morning. One day in the City, then off home with a stopover in Tokyo.
Ten weeks of drought in the UK and Europe threaten crops and urban water supplies. Not all that serious a situation in reality, not yet, but great times for us. Exchange rates heavily in our favour and fantastic weather have made this a great trip. We visited a fascinating, fully operational, traditional, water-powered flour mill today and Hardwick Hall, another of the great country houses of Britain. All our visits to these wonderful historic estates have been part of our membership of the UK National Trust.
Basing ourselves at a cottage like this is a great way to get to know an area. We have done it many times before on the Continent on our latest trip in 2008-9. Compared with our favoured travel mode, campervaning, it is way less adventurous, but far less stressful from the driving point of view. Expense wise, it is difficult to judge. Camping can cost nothing if we can find free camp sites, whereas cottage rental costs can be expensive, especially in prime locations at peak times. The other factor to consider is fuel. At over $2 AUD a ltr, the difference between running a 1.4L sedan and a heavy van is significant. Perhaps, the combination of both that we have experienced on our last couple of trips is the answer?

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