Sunday 25 August 2019

From the Isles of Scilly to Iona via the Essex marshes, 2019

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St Peter Ad Muram, Bradwell Juxta Mare, Essex

Home in Bucharest, thank God.

I went to many beautiful places in a long journey around the British Isles (including the four great cities of the Empire, London, Glasgow, Dublin and Edinburgh) but I like Bucharest much more than any of them. It is so much more exciting here if you are a foreigner. Not necessarily if you a Bucharest native.

Instead of 17° Celsius in the Athens of the North and raining intermittently it's 34° in the Paris of the East, a.k.a. 93° Fahrenheit.

I should have blogged my journey but did not. So here is a potpourri.

The three best moments of a wonderful holiday: the oldest church in England built by St Cedd on the shore of the Essex marshes at Bradwell Juxta Mare in 654  (though this is disputed by a friend of mine who says he has discovered an older one); journeys by train, substitution bus and boats from Glasgow to Iona and back; and three Schubert liede in  concert in Edinburgh Episcopalian Cathedral sung by Danae Eleni

After those three, the next very best moments of my holiday were eating haggis for breakfast, seeing many old friends and making new ones. Then wonderful train rides, cathedrals, pretending to be a London clubman, seeing England from outside the window as a sort of foreigner.

Somerset Maughan said you can eat better in England than in any other country in the world, providing you eat breakfast three times a day. How very true this would be except that breakfast in Scotland is even better as it includes the same things as an English breakfast and also white sausage and haggis.

The joy of Great Britain is that outside London the country is still Enid Blyton. The industrial towns are no longer J.B. Priestley or George Orwell though. They have changed completely, for good and ill. 

Driving holidays are fun but long rail journeys are more fun. I so recommend the train from Paddington to Penzance. Get the 12.05 or 13.05 from Paddington and enjoy lunch on the last white tablecloth restaurant car in the UK. It’s full of single, middle-aged men ordering bottles of wine and a bit like a club table in a London club but jollier.

Exasperatingly, the restaurant car was full when I got there. I thought of waiting an hour at the station for the 13.05 but it seemed foolish to lose an hour of Exeter so I gave up on the idea. But I found myself sitting opposite Gerry who loved the lunches. He, like me, hadn’t got a place but as a frequent passenger he had pull with the waiters and got them to sell him some wine and sandwiches, something not normally allowed. We recreated the idea of lunch with two amusing young actresses.

The scenery on the journey from London to Glasgow if not as good as Cornwall was still very beautiful indeed, especially through the Lake District and Scotch Lowlands. I find night trains exciting and had intended till the last minute to take one to Glasgow but I shall not do so again in Great Britain. The scenery is far too good to miss and the day trains very fast.

I managed to make my way to Winchester, Chichester and Exeter cathedrals as well as St Alban’s, Southwark and Glasgow. I don’t count St Giles’, Edinburgh or the other Edinburgh cathedrals or the Catholic cathedral at Arundel (though it is beautiful). I saw Truro and Chelmsford from the train, but they don't count either, and St Paul's from the bus. 

Exeter and Winchester Cathedrals are miraculous. I loved the whole town of Winchester and was taken round the school by a Wykehamist friend. The Wykeham Arms is one of the best pubs in the world and they serve a very good steak pie. Meat pies are my great vice. They have rooms too and it looked nicer than the more upmarket place where we stayed.

Exeter is also a beautiful town breathing the spirit of a bygone religious, hierarchical, patriarchal age but was badly knocked about by the Luftwaffe and then by postwar architects. 

British buildings and English literature are a riposte to the ideas of our own age. That's why they want to pull down statues of heroic figures like Cecil Rhodes. It's a bit like the Protestants destroying stained glass when they took over Exeter, Winchester and the other cathedrals.

Things changed, of course, in England in the twenty years that I have been away. Everyone is much kinder and much more polite. 

When you say thank you in England people now tend to reply "No worries" even though I wasn't worried. That I found annoying. It sounds Australian and though I love Australians it is not English. Before I went away people generally said nothing in reply to 'Thank you', but they did say 'Thank you' incessantly.

Everyone is hypochondriac and this year gluten seemed to be everywhere, or rather its absence was. An Indian restaurant in Glasgow did not serve parathas because they contain gluten.

Exeter was full of middle aged and elderly men in short trousers even in banks, but men were less effete in Glasgow, though this could be because of the cold, rainy weather.

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George Sq., Glasgow, seen from the Counting House public house

I loved Glasgow in the rain. Unlike other great Victorian cities Glasgow was not rebuilt in the era of those two monstrous figures Wilson and Heath. It breathes 19th century imperialism and masculine vigour, over which alas has been overlaid socialism and SNP populism.

A friend of mine described the experience of going to Glasgow to me as “Just get in the shower, turn on the cold, and rip up all your money. You could also punch yourself in the face if you really wanted the total experience. All you can do there is drink.” But I loved it despite the rain and cold.

Even Glasgow was polite and kind - it is no longer rough. Even the Gorbals has been gentrified, of course. 

I suppose I went to Glasgow vaguely because of C.R. Mackintosh but never bestirred myself to find his stuff or see the two famous museums. The eighteenth and nineteenth century East End held me fascinated.

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The train to Oban stops. Dark brown waves, pebble beach, heather.

I reached Luton Airport the day after Boris Johnson became Prime Minister. 

While he was massacring Theresa May's front bench with the callousness of a hired gun in a Quentin Tarentino film, England was having her hottest day in many years and the trains were therefore not running. 

I persuaded a family to share a taxi with me to St Alban's. 

The weather that first day in St Alban's was not only extremely hot but extraordinarily, unreally humid. I felt like I was in an expressionist painting. Perhaps The Scream. Fit for a Mexican cathedral, not one in Hertfordshire.

The pretty, buxom daughter had graduated that morning. It was a long journey and I very tentatively asked her about how divided people were about Brexit. She said that, as a student, she of course didn't know anyone who voted Leave. And no, she would never knowingly date someone who had done so.

I slightly avoided the subject of Brexit this holiday - I find it painful and imagine we all do - but when I asked people the pattern was that graduates were Remain and barmaids, shop assistants and tax drivers were Leave. The man who served me a glass of wine in El Vino's voted Remain, but he was the assistant manager and ambitious.

Graduates form part of a global class around the world, these days. Being rooted is not cool.

It's about being open minded and free spirited, but the generation in their early 20s do not seem open minded or free spirited to me. They seem astonishingly conformist. All people in their early 20s are conformist, I know, but these ones are worse than my generation.

I always thought, since I was a child, that the point of holidays was to look at churches but I tend to see them as things of overwhelming beauty rather than having a meaning. If I think about it though, the whole of my recent journey was studded with saints and martyrs starting with St Alban. 

St Alban was a British (not English) martyr, who gives his name to the place where he died. St Pancras was an Italian, or rather two Italians. 

"St Pancras was a young boy martyred in the reign of Diocletian. In England he is better known as a railway station." 
So said Sir John Betjeman. Here is the church in London that gave the station its name. The picture, like all the pictures in this post,  was taken by me. I spent a long time in Euston trying to buy a ticket to Glasgow and came across the famous church as I left.

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We may not think about it but religion is the basis of every country, even England, whether many people believe or not.  Protestant atheists are different from Catholic atheists. Muslim ones are different from either.

The great achievement of Protestantism was to make religion boring and depressing, so in Britain it is largely forgotten, but forgotten or not all history is ultimately theological. Even a country's economic performance derives mostly from religion.

In fact, though the British are fairly godless and go to India to seek spirituality, no country in the world is more mystical than Britain. 

In particular, Bradwell Juxta Mare in the Essex marshes, a lonely outpost of Christianity in a pagan universe, is close to heaven. Add to that the much better known Iona which I also reached, 1500 years after St Columba, and where the Book of Kells was written. Add Glastonbury and countless ruined monasteries, 
bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang
that I find more spiritual than the ones taken over by the Protestants.

You get to Bradwell via Maldon, an exquisite mediaeval town that is thankfully little visited. The day we went was 1028 years and one day after the Battle of Maldon, at which the brave men of my county Essex were defeated by infidel invaders from Sweden. Professor Simon Keynes, who supervised me, said there was absolutely no redeeming feature to the Vikings. 

I recommend Iona very highly but it is inaccesssible and rains all the time. Bradwell has a pub you can put up in, the Green Man, and can be reached from Southminster, which is at the end of a line from London Liverpool St. 

I only write this because I know I do not get enough readers to spoil the place.

In Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire, an equally beautiful town on the other side of the country, I saw a church (it was only recognised as a church in the 20th century) that dates from 1000 or maybe older. Bradford in general is like a small Bath, without the throngs of tourists.

Colchester is another wonderful old town (the oldest in Britain that we know of and the British capital before London) which tourists don't know about. Holy Trinity Church, Colchester has a tower built in around 1000, when Ethelred the Unready sat on his uneasy throne.

I did a lot of things and met a lot of people. I apologise if I haven't mentioned you yet. I plan to write more.

Everywhere Romanian was being spoken.

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The Catholic chancel of the divided parish church at Arundel


  1. I have had it in mind for years to tour England for the Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor edifices. But you have me wondering whether I would end up drawn to the ancient Christian sites.

  2. LOVELY... I enjoyed your posts about your trip immensely. having lived away from Britain and returned I can would make a nice short book.. you can be a little more expressive as you no longer live here ..