beyondrye-thumbTime was when I enjoyed reading about Henry VIII, who really did more than bed and behead Tudor women in his long reign. But Hilary Mantel, winner of two Booker prizes for her back-to-back blockbuster novels, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” gave me a whole new perspective.

By Robin Jovanovich

 

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Time was when I enjoyed reading about Henry VIII, who really did more than bed and behead Tudor women in his long reign. But Hilary Mantel, winner of two Booker prizes for her back-to-back blockbuster novels, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies,” gave me a whole new perspective.


So did a trip to Yorkshire this fall.


With our intrepid friends — he who drives, she who navigates and thinks for all of us — we traveled from Audley End (not far from Heathrow and all of us later realized we were so jet-lagged we didn’t remember much of it, but the part we did was memorable) to Norwich, Lincoln, York, Durham, and Hadrian’s Wall, and so many places in between, in eight very full days.


We never tired of looking at beautiful things in National Trust and English Heritage homes, and saved a farthing or two by rejoining both organizations.


Not only did we spend hours contemplating medieval stained glass windows — the largest surviving collection is at York Minster — but this trip we learned about grisaille (silver-stained) windows. While pausing at tombs and altars, we felt the greatness of people who built, believed, rebuilt, and carried on in times more perilous than ours.


With so much to see and far too little daylight, we split up at times. This trip, my husband and I left the walled city and footed it over to the National Railway Museum. After seeing elegant, steam, and streamlined models from every era, I wandered off to the collection and maintenance rooms. I thought back to the time when we lived in England and our boys were young and keen on locomotives and tank engines. Oh, for grandchildren.


If you’re near York and a BBC (make that “Downton Abbey”/“Brideshead Revisited”) devotee, venture out to Castle Howard, where landscaping reigns supreme. Any time of the year, you will find texture and magnificence. The woodlands gardens are fine in the fall. But you’ll have to return another time of year to see the rhododendrons in their splendor.


Go west from there to Fountains Abbey, one of the best preserved of the monastic sites Henry VIII had dissolved. Set in a valley, the ruins and gardens are a world unto themselves.


We relied on personal predilections and the Michelin and Rough Guide to get us to stops off the beaten path. We happened on the delightful towns of Harrogate, a spa town in north Yorkshire, where Sir Edward Elgar spent his last days, and Stamford, where an art show very much like our recent Rye Art Center sculpture show was going on. We went out of our way to see an Alan Ayckbourn play in the seaside town of Scarborough. I’d go back if I knew the playwright would be there to have tea and talk about the inanity and hilarity of modern life.


After going through antiquity and history museums and reviewing Roman, Viking, and English history, we arrived at Hadrian’s Wall, a desolate place, just south of Scotland. Emperor Hadrian, who ordered the construction of the wall after a visit in 122 AD, must have had good reason to fear the Scots. But the area is now more pastoral than protectorate now. Children joyfully climbed the low remaining walls and sheep lumbered right past us as we walked up to the top.


Through the perseverance of hundreds of souls over the centuries, whom we would all have liked to meet in the flesh — especially Lord Lothian, late of Blickling Hall, who met with von Ribbentrop at his stately home in 1938, but went on to become U.S. Ambassador — our motley foursome left England restored and imagining the world before wrack and ruin.