England above and beyond London
By JILL SCHENSUL | The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) | Published: May 4, 2016
I just spent 10 days in England, and before you ask, no, I didn’t get a glimpse of the queen or Buckingham Palace.
I did, however, get to meet the shepherdess Katy Cropper, who’s achieved a kind of royal status since she became the first woman to win the "One Man and His Dog" sheepdog competition in 1990. I spent hours on her beautiful little farm, and her entourage of border collies, "practice sheep" and sheep farmer/dog owners were a lot more fun than those stone-faced members of the Queen’s Guard.
I didn’t visit St. Paul’s Cathedral or the British Library. Or so much as take a picture of the Tower of London, mainly because I didn’t set so much as a foot in the city.
I’ve been to London, done that "must" stuff (well, I haven’t see the queen). You’ll never hear me say London-schmundon. It’s the most-visited destination in Britain for a reason: It’s a trove of attractions and history and style. All fab, yes, but also ... popular (I bet you thought I was going to say expensive. And it is.) London is well-mapped and tourist-friendly.
See London, of course. But then see more. It’s an entirely different Britain outside London.
From Day One of my 10-day road trip out of the Manchester airport, I discovered attractions, towns, scenery, accommodations, food and amazing claims to fame. Especially cool because they were often so unsung, un-hyped, tucked away.
What appeared, for example, to be a Gothic cathedral in downtown Manchester, right across from a 20-foot-tall inflated baby chick (Easter), turned out to be the John Rylands Library, built by his wife in his honor, with its collection of treasures rivaling that of Trinity College. Or take the Liverpool Cathedral -- one of two in the city -- which is even bigger than London’s St. Paul’s. And while St. Paul’s architect, Christopher Wren, is better known, Giles Gilbert Scott, who was only 22 when he got the Liverpool job in 1902, later designed those bright-red British phone booths.
I found great vegetarian food at traditional pubs and at a new breed of small, eat-local restaurants in the middle of nowhere, which attract foodies even on weeknights. I also discovered that York is not only famous for its cathedral and Roman and Viking ruins, but also as the birthplace of the Kit Kat bar.
I also found a world-class observatory in the middle of a forest in England’s least-visited region, Northumberland, which is also home to one of the small chain of International Dark Sky Parks. Northumberland has the largest expanse of dark night sky in all Europe, and the park’s small staff holds programs almost nightly to gaze through telescopes at galaxies and stars light years away.
The variety of sites and experiences is remarkable -- this is not the land of wide-open spaces. You can get from Manchester to the northern border and into Scotland, for instance, in less than four hours. Stop along the A1 highway, just outside of Newcastle, to take some selfies beneath the 177-foot wide wingspan of Sir Antony Gorley’s towering steel sculpture, Angel of the North. Everyone else does.
The 66-foot-tall, supersize figure was at first controversial but soon got so much publicity it became a landmark for northeastern England -- a trigger for its current artsy renaissance, some say. It has also been earmarked by the Icons of England program.
Continue on the A1 for less than an hour, and you’ll be at another icon and man-made megastructure, Hadrian’s Wall. Britain’s most important monument to the era of Roman occupation, the wall was built in A.D. 122 by the eponymous Roman emperor and spans the 73-mile breadth of Northern England.
Ten days weren’t nearly enough to explore the region, yet they were time enough to come back with a long list of visit-worthy places that I want to pass along. They’ll be the subjects of articles in future travel sections. But for now, I’ve gathered up a few of the most memorable images from that trip -- not a beefeater or a bobby in even one.
LEADERS OF THE FLOCK
You could call her the queen of shepherdesses. Or the border-collie whisperer. Katy Cropper was the first woman to win the Britain’s "One Man and His Dog" shepherd-dog competition nearly two decades ago. When you see her work with the dogs on her farm in Shap, it’s obvious they understand one another. Whether she’s using a whistle or a vocal command, the dogs follow her instructions as they gather, redirect, divide up or otherwise manage a flock of sheep. She forms a bond with her four-footed students, and they obey her commands because they want to please her. Sheep farmers come from all over the country to have Cropper train their herding dogs.
THE MANY SIDES OF YORK
This helpful tree of directional signs is strategically located outside the York Minister cathedral, reminding visitors that there’s more to this city -- founded by the Romans in A.D. 71 -- than just another pretty cathedral, even if it is the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. A Viking village, the largest railroad museum in the world and The Shambles (top arrow shown here), thought to be the oldest shopping street in Europe and mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. Recently opened is an attraction that covers yet another part of the city’s history: York’s Chocolate Story. No, it’s not yet another M&M’s store; York was home, after World War II, to both Rowntree’s and Terry’s, which gave the world the Kit Kat bar and the Chocolate Orange, respectively. These well-known chocolatiers grew up here and had factories that were major employers in the area until they were swallowed up by bigger players -- Rowntree’s by Nestle, Terry’s by Kraft.
Liverpool is one of several English cities making a big comeback, thanks largely to redevelopment of its historic waterfront. The Beatles would undoubtedly be amazed by the changes, and Paul McCartney has helped invest in the future of his old hometown.
TRACES OF ROME’S LEGACY
One of the few places you can get a glimpse of Hadrian’s Wall, the most important monument of the 300-year Roman occupation of England, is at Sycamore Gap, west of Housesteads Roman Fort in Hexham. There you can see the highest remains of the wall as well as the solitary tree immortalized in the film "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the wall runs for 73 miles across the breadth of the country in the north, and today visitors can learn about the history at various sites along its length.
ANGEL OF THE NORTH
The sculpture by Antony Gormley dominates the landscape from its site on a hilltop overlooking the A1 highway in Gateshead. Part of the city’s blossoming Public Arts Program, it was hotly protested when unveiled in 1998 but then quickly gained headlines throughout the art world. Set on the site of an old mining operation, the Angel is seen by more than one person every second, 90,000 every day or 33 million every year. Gormley wanted it to connect with the past, while helping to define the future.
Info: gateshead.gov.uk/Leisure and Culture/attractions/Angel/Home.aspx
Sharrow Bay has become something of an English lakes legend since it opened in 1949. Book a room or a meal at the Sharrow Bay Hotel in Penrith, and you might feel like you’ve dropped into a Merchant-Ivory period film. The elegant 17-room inn at the edge of Ullswater Lake is said to be the world’s first country-house hotel, a place you could never afford to own but can think of as your own for at least a little while. The owners, Francis Coulson and Brian Sack, filled the place with antiques, beautiful fabrics and tapestries, comfy chairs, great food (including the famous sticky toffee dessert), and the inn now has a reputation as one of the top accommodations in the region. Be aware that there’s a dress code: no jeans or sneakers at any time. For all this refinement, service and exclusivity, however, rates are fairly reasonable. You might be able to grab a standard room on a weekday in summer for under $200 a night. Rates can go up to $600 for the top suites per night on high-season fall weekends
If you were among the millions who fell in love with the Yorkshire Dales through the stories of James Herriot, country veterinarian, welcome to James Herriot’s World, literally. Part house museum, part memorabilia collection, the attraction in Thirsk opened in 1999 in the very buildings where Herriot lived and took care of his patients. Herriot -- real name James Alfred Wight -- died in 1995. On display you’ll find the original manuscript (often rejected) of the first book in the "All Creatures Great and Small" series, photos of the gang -- Herriot’s partners Siegfried and Tristan Farnon, plus -- and a bronze statue recently installed in the courtyard of the home. Although the vet is identified (real name, too), the dog in his arms isn’t named, which seems a little out of character.
Pub food at the Drunken Duck in Ambleside nowadays includes several options for vegetarians -- as well as a three-beer tasting option -- just in case you can’t decide on one.
William Wordsworth first saw Dove Cottage while on a walking tour of the Lake District with Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1799. He fell in love with the place as well as the scenery, and by chance the building, formerly a pub called the Dove and the Olive Branch, was available for rent. He bought the place in Grasmere and moved in, along with his sister Dorothy; he was married in 1802, and the couple had three of their five children there. The place was visited by many friends and poets at the time. You can visit both the cottage and the Wordsworth Museum on the grounds.