When school finished at the end of July I felt lost: the sky was hidden by a grey-white blanket for about a week. The weather forecast on TV showed the map of Great Britain with a clear sky all over it except for a grey cloud hovering on Lancashire and Cumbria. It was unfair.
When the Olympics approached they announced there had been six days of sunshine in London and not a ray of sun was piercing the thick clouds up here. I felt envious.
In Rome my parents said it was terribly hot: suffocating, which convinced me once more that clouds were better than 40° C and high humidity levels. I made the right choice in staying in England this summer.
My daughter went to Cornwall and came back an amber colour. She had had sunshine and 25-28° for a whole week. At last the forecasters said there would be ‘sunny spells’, which didn’t mean you would have a glimpse of a piece of blue sky from time to time, only that the sun would mysteriously manage to cast a stronger light through the thick clouds. I noticed this by paying close attention to the pale shadows of trees on the ground. Then more rain was announced. Was autumn already here?
Some days it was tricky. I woke up with the sun and got ready to go out. By 10:30 the whole sky would be grey again, like sugar paper. To cheer me up I experimented with new recipes for cakes, biscuits and ice creams and prepared the house for my parents’ arrival. I bought new plants to replace some bushes burnt by winter frost and painted the living room curtains with reed patterns.
At a certain point we decided to take a trip to wherever in England was sunny. But it was too late. The grey blanket had spread over the rest of the country as well.
So we waited full of hope and trusting the fact that the Olympics would bring something good. And we were rewarded. Summer came at last, sunny and warm but not too hot. A breeze always blew to cool the heat. It was just perfect.
When my parents arrived at Manchester airport in the first week of August, they felt relieved after having endured 40-45° C in Rome with 70% humidity.
During their stay we often sunbathed in the rear garden on some deck chairs I had bought some time ago (on a dreadful rainy day in May, and we had thought it had been a waste of money till then).
The good weather lasted for the most part of our holidays (except for a few unplanned accidents, but nothing is perfect). Gorgeous day after gorgeous day allowed us to have great outings visiting North Yorkshire and Northumbria.
When my parents went back to Rome at the end of August they had a shock: their house was an oven, they said, and they couldn’t sleep at night for the heat.
The bad weather, before and after the two or three weeks of magnificent summer, wasn’t a disgrace though. It allowed me to work on my MA Portfolio (the final effort to attain the MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University) and to finish the translations of Eugenio Montale’s poems I am doing with an English poet, Keith Lander. Rain and clouds helped me concentrate and kept me cool.
Valentina, my autistic daughter, was at home of course. No school, no respite care and no chance to get her out. We had to find something to engage her. She loved dressing up and kept on sneaking our clothes from drawers and wardrobes. So I bought her some pretty, cheap summer dresses and skirts in charity shops. She used to wear one on top of the other, four or five layers of clothes at a time. The only problem was going to the loo, I had to hold her skirts up like a lady's maid from the past.
She also enjoyed drawing and as she liked large sheets of paper we bought her some flip chart paper and chunky felt pens. In a few days we had her large, abstract drawings scattered all over the kitchen and the living room.
When the Olympics started I lost my husband. He was virtually at home all the time but in reality he was totally concentrated on and dedicated to the Olympic games. He normally watched three sport competitions at a time: two on the Internet and one on TV. He had a strict, well-planned timetable to follow his favourite sports.
Personally what I most enjoyed were the opening and closing ceremonies with all the dancing, stunning costumes and marvellous music. It was superbly exciting and I wished it could have lasted forever. How thrilling it would have been to be there.
My husband and I had some misunderstandings when we spoke of ‘our’ team. For me it was Team GB, for him it was the Italian Team. A few tense moment followed, but finally he had to admit Team GB did exceedingly well and deserved all the medals and the third place in the world: an outstanding achievement. I felt very proud of living here.
We had planned a lot of trips around England before the summer started but at the end we did only three.
When my eldest son’s girlfriend came to see us at the beginning of August we went to the Yorkshire Dales. My aim was to see waterfalls and buttertubs, which I had read about in the guide and which intrigued me.
We reached Hawes before lunchtime and visited the Dales Countryside Museum. Besides a striking Viking gold ring, the most interesting part of the museum was dedicated to the tools men and women used in their everyday work to make shoes, clothes and woollen items, to dig, cut, saw and carve, and to prepare butter and cheese. An interesting hand machine, a sort of large wooden box, was used to wash, rinse and wring wet clothes. How long it must have taken to process at home all the food we now buy at supermarkets and make clothes as well! A full time, never-ending activity. Videos, photos and captions showed how hard life was in the Dales till the 1950s. It reminded me of the hardships in the Italian countryside in the same period.
The museum receptionist advised us to see Hardraw Falls near the Green Dragon Inn, five minutes by car from the museum. The site was idyllic: a path across a lawn surrounded by rocks and groves led us to a stream ending in a pond where a tremendous fall of water dropped a hundred metres. It was breathtaking. I had the sensation we were falling from such a height ourselves. The rocks around the pond and the water were burnt sienna in colour, probably containing iron, which gave rusty and maroon reflections to the water and stones.
We had our lunch at the Green Dragon (Yorkshire pudding with sausages and lamb: delicious) and headed to the buttertubs. My guide book said they are rocks eroded by water forming potholes where farmers used to lower butter to keep it cool on their way to the market.
There were no signs to locate the buttertubs so we missed them twice before stopping the car in the right place. They looked like columns made of layers of grey stone emerging from a precipice. I leant out to look at them, though my husband was scared and warned me to not get too close. Their irregular shape and incredible height make them like pillars of imaginary architecture.
Coming back home we took a narrow road meandering up and down the Dales. The green valleys wove between ochre mountains; dark grey stone villages appeared on the road like rocks merging into the landscape. Strikingly beautiful in its simplicity and authenticity.
When my parents arrived we went on the second trip to London, just my daughter, my mother and myself. We caught the 8:38 train from Lancaster, looking forward to starting our day there. Our plans were: the exhibition of Ballgowns at the V&A museum, fabric shops in Soho (my daughter needed some silk for her prom dress) and Kew Gardens. On the train I thought: I love my life.
The exhibition was superb. Each gown was a unique work of art, so beautiful and desirable like a precious vase or a jewel. Of course you need money to buy one and an occasion to wear it.
In our wildest dreams we chose our favourites. My mother opted for a classic style: a chenille wool peach pink dress plus overcoat by Rahuis (1966) with embroidered pink, yellow and green beading on the coat sleeves and on the hem of the dress.
My daughter was for an informal loosefit by Yuki (1972) open at the sides and with a low cut at the back.
I was enraptured by a silk dress with silver and grey print by Alexander McQueen (from his last collection, autumn/winter 2010 inspired by Renaissance art). The cut of the dress was quite simple except for the padded shoulders, folded to resemble the drape of ancient marble statues. The print pictured two women, or angels, and two crows. The images were fascinating and symbolic: the women and crows were mirror-like, casting a dark shadow, which made the figures stand out. The women were each wrapped in a mantle: they had the perfect profile of a Raffaello Madonna, with the crows winged at their backs, claws waiting to grasp them.
Exhibit captions explained that in the 1950s the events were organized during the summer season, towards Queen Charlotte’s Birthday Ball, where debutantes were introduced into society. Later on the Charity Balls gave occasions to wear gowns. Today red carpet events are the main places where celebrities need to wear a grand gown and show it to the whole world. It is interesting how these elegant, sophisticated and, I suppose, awfully expensive dresses developed from strictly private and aristocratic items to global objects everyone can, at least, look at.
We spent a long time in the V&A looking at the fashion section, which reopened last May. The gorgeous but terribly uncomfortable dresses women had to wear till the 1920s gave a clear idea of the ‘cages’ they were forced to live in. Getting dressed, and undressed, must have been a very complicated matter. World War I changed this fashion, together with many other things.
In Soho we entered all the fabric shops in Berwick Street; finally in the last one my daughter found the right silk fabric for the prom gown she is going to make by herself. We rushed to Kew Gardens but it was too late. Next time maybe.
Our third and last trip was to Ambleside. I had planned it carefully a month in advance. We would have arrived in Bowness by car in the morning, taken the ferry to Ambleside, toured the centre, lunched somewhere and gone back to Bowness by ferry. The weather forecast said: rain in the afternoon. We thought we had time.
At 10 am we were ready, in our two cars. I fastened the seat belt and started up the engine of the Ford Galaxy. It didn’t work. I tried again: the battery was down, almost dead. We opened the bonnet and gave a look at it: it was six years old and time to change it. That’s what we did but it took an hour and a half. We had to cut out the cruise on Windermere.
We reached Ambleside at lunchtime, had some fish and chips and ice cream...and it started to rain. It was pouring down. We had our tour of the centre all the same and bought little presents. My parents didn’t complain. They said they didn’t expect to have sunshine every day in England.
On the way back home the rain got harder. On the motorway there were serious visibility problems and I panicked for a few seconds. It wasn’t a great day, though Ambleside was as pretty as usual. We’ll go back again on a better day.
I found it so easy and comfortable to jump in the car, drive for an hour or two, and there was our destination. No queuing, checking luggage, taking off shoes and belts or rushing to find a decent seat on the train or plane. We reached Fountains Abbey in about two hours, had lunch and walked through the gate of the visitors' centre. Looking at the site map they gave us, it was unexpectedly huge and massively interesting. There was not only the Abbey, as we had thought, but also a park developed in 18th century style with classical temples, a Hall –there was a wedding on – a deer park and a Victorian church.
We followed a guided tour round the Abbey; the guide visualized for us all the different parts of the edifice, now in ruin, and their use in the life of the monks. It was so big it housed more than two hundred monks (scholars, labourers and lay brothers) and thrived during the fleece trade with Venice and Florence. The mill is still intact (as Henry VIII was interested in destroying mainly the Abbey). It produced hundreds of kilos of bread every day for the whole Abbey population.
The remains of the church give an idea of how busy it must have been. The nave is huge, with a large window at entrance and apse. At some point it was enlarged to make more space, building chapels to celebrate Masses for the souls in Purgatory, so high was the demand to shorten their pains and let them enter Paradise. It must have been spectacular at when complete, as even the ruins are still majestic. Roofless and with such wide windows it seems to breathe.
On the left side of the apse there is a sculpture, its inside an angel, its outside a green man: sacred and profane? Maybe just the merging of religion and local traditions. The green man looked intriguing, as unholy things often are.
Apparently women were not allowed in the Abbey. Eventually they could cross the church’s threshold only if very rich, and dead.
We walked along the path to admire the magnificent water garden and cross the deer park (we spotted a few deer only fifty yards from us). It started to drizzle and my father felt tired. I had noticed he walked very slowly and often stopped to rest. Stairs and steep slopes were a serious problem for him. And the car park was far away. My husband offered to walk to the car park, come back and pick him up.
We reached York in the evening. It was sunny and warm. The B&B was so pleasant that my parents asked us to take a photo in their cosy bedroom. The next morning we had an exquisite, robust breakfast surrounded by prints of Escher’s drawings (my husband’s favourite) and went sightseeing about York.
It was a gorgeous summer day and the centre was packed with people. The cathedral was our first goal. We visited it on a guided tour which was cleverly informative. Unfortunately the east window is under restoration and though our tickets are valid for a year, I think it will take much longer to complete. In the apse there was a wooden Pieta by Fenwick Lawson. Mary stood, emerging from a trunk, and Jesus lay on the floor, his shape formed by driftwood depicting a dying body. Tremendously original and evocative.
We climbed to the tower (all of us, except my father). It was hard, 296 narrow steps, but we finally reached the top. The Chapter House had a weird range of carvings: animals, monsters, men and women making faces, laughing and picking their noses, surprising in such a solemn place.
We also visited the Yorkshire museum and went shopping. Valentina found some tea cosies with the Union Jack she loved (she bought two) and wore as a hat during all our journey. She also found some hand and some mouth puppets in a toy shop. She was so happy when we finally bought them she wore them on her hands the whole day.
We ate in an Italian restaurant in the Shambles and slowly walked back home. We felt all the light-heartedness and relaxation of holiday time. The evening light was glimmering on the river Ouse, the Clifford Tower cut its yellow shape against the clear blue sky and people were out, dressed up, to enjoy Saturday evening. Everything was carefree.
The following morning we headed to Castle Howard. Again we didn’t expect it to be such a huge place. We decided not to take a guided tour but to explore it by ourselves and wander around the park. Luckily, from the entrance to the house, there was a train my parents could take, as too much walking worried them.
The house is magnificent. It reminded me of the French Renaissance castles along the Loire, though they were built about two centuries earlier and most of them have little furniture or nothing at all inside. Castle Howard is incredibly rich: fine china collections, Roman busts, portraits and unique pieces of furniture. There was an oak cradle engraved all over with geometrical patterns. a self-contained flushing chamber pot, circa 1825, that looked like a piece of mahogany furniture (very similar to the one we used in our caravan, except ours was made of plastic) and all kinds of writing tables. One was especially pretty. It was rather small, slightly bigger than a laptop, whose sides and upright back contained shelves for paper, letters, pen and ink, and could be folded. A sort of portable bureau. The keepers were happy to have a chat with visitors and add some more information on the objects in the room.
Some rooms had been damaged by fire and hosted pictures of the two famous films from Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, set in Castle Howard. It was impossible to separate the place from the story of Charles’ and Sebastian’s friendship, Sebastian’s Roman Catholic family and the love story between Charles and Julia. It seemed their place and no one else’s. So I was surprised to learn real people live there. Their photos are everywhere: the family, descendants of the Earl of Carlisle, live in the east wing of the palace. They looked quite friendly and wore ordinary clothes.
Towards the end of the tour there was an exhibition of pictures Castle Howard inspired together with positive and negative comments on the house. Some examples: ‘strikingly beautiful and yet a home’; ‘a place not to be forgotten in future history’; ‘this is one of the English show-places but I do not like it at all’; ‘the finest specimen of a vicious style’. I don’t know: I found it exceedingly beautiful and important, like a Gothic cathedral, an ancient Greek temple or a Roman Forum: you can’t undervalue them or pretend they don’t exist.
Of course we had a walk in the park. We couldn’t see everything because it was getting late and we were tired, but we got an idea of the huge estate. On the brochure I read that a lot is going on at Castle Howard: fairs, fun weekends for children, proms, cycling, archery and climbing, Yorkshire food markets, dog shows and Christmas celebrations. A place to go back to.
For the night we stopped in Whitby. I had booked two rooms at the Youth Hostel: a family room and a double for my parents. The hostel was so packed they could give us only the family room with eight beds. All right, one night altogether.
We were on top of the hill facing the still leaden North Sea, close to the Abbey, its ruins drilled by the salty winds. We had a walk in the old streets of the town and dinner in a restaurant, fish-and-chips award winner: a last taste of Yorkshire.
Before leaving home I was worried about my autistic daughter’s eating habits. Valentina is very picky and she doesn’t like eating out. After two days of only jam in the morning and salad in the evening, she had sausages and vanilla ice cream all the time. She would eat an average of eight to ten sausages and three to five big portions of vanilla ice cream each day. We thought we were lucky that we had eventually found something she liked.
The first site we visited in Northumbria was Hadrian’s Wall. We chose Chester Fort to picture how the Romans had organized their life on the north-west border of the empire. The remains give only a hint of how the edifice would have been, as often happens with Roman ruins, and the impact it had on the area. A river flows near it and green grass surrounds the low walls forming squares and rectangles, typical of the practical vision of the Romans. I thought how different it was from the Celts, who worked in circles and spirals, and from the decorations in medieval time. Roman rationality and practicality is clear not only in the structure of the buildings but also in the use they made of the bath house (keeping clean was essential to avoid disease), in the storage of food (they needed supplies for at least one year) and in the discipline that ruled the fort. Soldiers came from different parts of the empire and mixed with local people. The Venerable Bede (731 AD) said the wall was eight feet wide and twelve feet high; there were gates, turrets, forts and milecastles along it and Romano-British settlements near them. It lasted about three hundred years and when it was abandoned all the good square stones, columns and arches were removed and reused. It is estimated that about thirty churches and as many castles have Roman stones, sometimes a lot of them. They were used for farms and field walls too, so what we see today is a pale image of what it was in the past, a faint trace on the countryside that gives the imagination free reign. It is a fascinating line that barely marks the landscape but develops larger constructions from time to time, maintaining its indelible mark without disturbing the view.
Our next stop was Durham. We arrived in the evening, but it was still sunny and the cathedral wouldn’t close till 8 pm. I had been there before but I had forgotten how astoundingly beautiful it is. Everything is fascinating: the luminous ochre sandstone, the lozenge and chevron patterns carved in the columns, the indented arches in Galilee Chapel. The architecture is unique, sparingly attractive, in a Norman Romanesque style with unusual echoes of the Arabic. An evensong service was on when we arrived, making the atmosphere even more mystical and absorbed.
We chose a pub for our dinner as we craved plates of hot meat and veg and good lager. It was everything we needed. Full and satisfied we then rested.
The following day we had designs on two castles: Alnwick and Dunstanburgh, one very different from the other.
The architecture of Alnwick castle is so severe on the outside as to fit perfectly with our idea of a medieval castle. Inside it is another story. It is incredibly rich with sumptuous upholstery, inlaid furniture and paintings of great Renaissance and Baroque masters. I felt overwhelmed. I didn’t know where to look: everything was so precious, polished and shining. The gardens were beautiful too. It was a warm, sunny day, children running and splashing everywhere, people sunbathing on the grass, licking ice cream cones, walking barefoot in the streams. A picture-perfect holiday. At the entrance there is a fountain where water falls from the top of a hill into different pools and there is a garden at the top with a great variety of flowers and plants.
Dunstanburgh Castle is on the North Sea coast near Craster. Only ruins remain of it, not so much more than Hadrian’s Wall. You need to walk more than a mile to reach it, among cows and sheep and their droppings. When you approach it the view is quite dramatic. The gatehouse is still impressive, its background the North Sea's dark beaches where stones have the colour of lichens and moss and the sea waves glitter like crystal on a sunny day.
In the evening we had a huge dinner in the restaurant of the hotel where we spent the night: starter, main dish and dessert. The bill was a bit stiff but the food was delicious and we had such a good time chatting and laughing about our holiday.
Our last day was dedicated to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. We drove along the narrow causeway, in part still flooded, and reached the island. Though sunny it was bitterly cold, windy with sprays of seawater from time to time. The view was austere, dazzling because of the reflections of shallow waters merging with land. We visited the ruins of the Priory where an arch of the crossing-tower vault stood out undaunted against the blue sky. The statues of St Cuthbert and St Aidan bore testimony to the past. The charm of Lindisfarne is in its vulnerability: it has no rocky oucrops and is almost flat at sea level. No wonder it was an easy prey for the Vikings, who destroyed it. Later on it was rebuilt by monks from Durham and fell into decay after the Reformation. Its stones were reused as usual to build the castle and other buildings in the island. What caused the final disintegration was the collapse of the central tower in 1820s. Because of this sense of doom and defencelessness I feel it is a place in the hands of God.
Coming back to Lancaster it rained and rained. On the way we looked for a place to stop and have another quick look at Hadrian’s Wall. But it was getting late and we couldn’t find anywhere near enough and easy to reach, so we have a reason to go back there again for a day trip.
Unfortunately our holiday was over, but we loved every moment of it.