Toward the end of the train journey, a man got on and sat across from me. He had a beer and finished it and pulled out another. He kept interrupting my reading and asking me questions, but his speech was so unclear that I couldn’t understand him. I found myself not only annoyed but also feeling threatened and angry. It highlighted to me how vulnerable women are in the world, particularly when they are alone. I wondered, ‘would he have sat across from me if I were with a guy?’ He said something once to the man across the aisle, but even then I realized that that man had the privilege of only feeling annoyed, whereas I started to wonder what I would do should this guy follow me off the train or try to cop a feel as I disembarked.
In all likelihood, he was just an overly friendly tipsy guy, but as a solo traveler, I can’t afford to assume that. That is what is so exhausting about travelling alone. I experienced it again at the hostel, but I’ll get to that later. I booked it from the train to my hostel, partly to lose the guy if I had to and partly because I wanted to see all of York in one day so I could move on to Alnwick.
I headed to Clifton Tower and York Castle Museum first. Clifton Tower is unimpressive after seeing the keep at Cardiff Castle. At the YCM, I bought a special pass to get into four sites. At first, I was disappointed that YCM seemed to have little to do with castles. It had rooms set up like the Victorian era, which isn’t particular to York, or even England. But they did have a whole street made up like it as well, complete with shops and gaol and schoolhouse, etc. Their exhibits were themed, like “Toys,” “Shaping the Body,” and “The ‘60s.”
The next stop on my pass was the Jorvik Center, a small exhibit set up in a church about the Vikings in York. There were people in period costume talking about different aspects of life and I got to try a bit of dried, salted cod (just like the Vikings ate!). I bought a struck coin of a Viking design they found in Jorvik excavations.
Next was the Yorkshire Museum, rather mediocre with some natural history and pre-history making up about half of it. It did go through the history of York, though, which was interesting. On the way out, I stopped by a tent that was offering the chance to hold a bird of prey and get your picture taken. I chose a little owl named Woody. He was super cute and I got to stroke his soft, plumy belly too.
I finished my pass at the York Art Gallery. It was an interesting collection. The special exhibit was art from WWI. I’ve seen a lot of WWI stuff while over here, probably because the centenary of the Battle of the Somme recently passed. Upstairs, they had a large ceramics section, many made by local artists, and another gallery filled with donations from some guy who was clearly an eccentric.
When I was done, I wandered around the old part of town and took pictures of the many beautiful buildings and passageways. I was able to end my day sort of early and pick up something to eat from a grocery store before checking in to my hostel, which felt luxurious after the one in Oxford. I got a bottom bunk and share a bathroom only with the other people in my room. However, when I first checked in and set my things down and logged on to the internet, there was a man in the room. I wondered if it was just going to be the two of us, and it worried me. I felt energized enough to go out again for a few more picture and to pick up a pop, and when I got back, a girl had joined the room, so I felt better. Ultimately there ended up being five of us in a room for six.
You cannot train to Alnwick because it is too small. You have to train to nearby Alnmouth and then take a bus. When I arrived at my hostel, the guy working there gave me a coupon for 15% off admission to the castle. The castle is amazing. First of all, it’s a huge complex and very beautiful, not just in its architecture but also its surroundings. The views from the castle walls are idyllic fields and pastures. You might see cows grazing in the distance. There were lots of places to explore with different exhibits in rooms along the walls and towers. In the inner building, we could visit the state rooms (but not take pictures because it’s still a private residence). I didn’t realize Downton Abbey was filmed there for the Christmas specials until I got there and saw the display of a few costumes from the production.
From there, I went to Alnwick Garden. When I entered, I was awed by a giant water cascade in the center of the garden. To my left, was the Poison Garden, so I went there first. You have to go on a timed ticket because there’s a limit to how many people can be in there at one time. As our tour started, it began to rain. Again, fool that I am, I didn’t have my umbrella with me. Fortunately, it wasn’t a downpour so I was able to bear it. Our guide told us about some of the plants there and how they have been used over time and how they are poisonous.
The rest of the gardens are all beautiful, and even the rain, which eventually stopped, and subsequent grey skies couldn’t dispel the sense of joy I had when I was there. In fact, at one point, I thought, ‘I have never known joy until today.’ Obviously, I have known joy many times, but that’s just what I thought in that moment when I was able to be in the moment, soaking up the visual and olfactorial beauty. I can’t really convey adequately the effect the garden had on me, but perhaps the following paragraph will help.
I believe what studies say about nature: that it is good for our physical and emotional well-being. I know a lot of people point to the 1960s as being “that moment” when society went south, but I would argue that it was much earlier (if, in fact, there is such a time rather than there not being anything new under the sun). I think the Industrial Revolution was the start of the slow death of our collective soul, when people left agrarian lives and swarmed to the cities filled with smog and noise pollution. Nature, as Romans tells us, is proof of God’s existence. When we remove ourselves from it and surround ourselves with man-made landscapes, evidence of man’s abilities and ingenuity, like skyscrapers, we forget the awesomeness of God’s abilities and ingenuity. Take a flower, a simple flower, like the many roses at Alnwick Gardens, and study it. You can focus on the miracle of the life cycle itself, the intricacies of botany and photosynthesis and pollination. You can focus on its scent, the design of its bloom (and if you’re particularly geeky, how it follows the Golden Ratio), or the juxtaposition of the softness of its petals with the prick of its thorns. And when you stop to think that the rose really serves no practical purpose- we don’t eat it, it’s not medicinal, it doesn’t keep pests away- we see that its sole purpose is to be beautiful. That teaches us something about the nature of beauty, the value of beauty, and God. And that’s just from taking the time to study one plant, or, if you’ll forgive me, to stop and smell the roses. Imagine the effect of regularly surrounding yourself with nature and taking it in. I didn’t start this entry with the intention of waxing philosophical about plants, but if you’re interested in the topic, I recommend reading some Wendell Berry.
At any rate, just outside the garden is a large treehouse. By large, I mean that there are a couple cafes in it, and it’s actually more of a treehouse complex with rope bridges. All of this, the castle, garden, and treehouse, is in walking distance of downtown. I ended the day by picking up the best fish ‘n’ chips I had on this trip (though still not as good as the ones my host mom in Australia used to buy), and retiring to my hostel where I had my room to myself! This is the benefit of travelling to lesser known places. Alnwick was one of my favorites from the trip, and I would definitely go back, especially if I were taking a sabbatical or honeymoon because it is smaller and quieter and just beautiful, not to mention friendly.