Stratford to York

On The Road Travel Essays

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Stratford to York

(COURIER: There are many dull stretches, so use material like "How the British Say It.").

Warwick (Population 16,000)  The town is famous for its castle. The site was just made for a castle: it sits on a mound overlooking the River Avon. There was a primitive Saxon settlement, destroyed by the Danes (915). The townspeople began to build thick walls for defense. Soon after the Norman Conquest, Henry de Newburgh, a trusted officer of William the Conqueror, built a new castle. For his services to the crown, Newburgh was made Earl of Warwick, and from this name comes the name of the castle, the town, and the surrounding county, Warwickshire.

The Earls of Warwick: During England's Wars of the Roses, the Earls of Warwick rose to political influence and came to be called "king makers" for their ability to put allies on English throne. But anti-Warwick forces kept besieging the castle; hence its walls were made thicker, with massive fortifications.

Centuries later, when peace returned to England under Elizabeth I, great pageants were held at the castle. Young Will Shakespeare was known to have journeyed to Warwick from Stratford with his father to attend the festivities, which included wrestling, mock-battles, processions, and masques. Elizabeth herself was present on this occasion.

Coventry (Population 300,000)  The city is known chiefly for its stark-modern cathedral, its automobile industry, and the legend of Lady Godiva.

Lady Godiva: In 1043, Leofric, a Saxon nobleman, and his wife Godiva founded a Benedictine monastery which became one of the richest in England. The legend of Lady Godiva, whether true or not, reveals something of the character of the times. Leofric lived in great splendor by imposing heavy taxes on the people. Godiva frequently implored him to ease their burdens, but he always refused. One day, in jest, he promised to do so if she would ride naked on horseback through the streets. To his surprise, she did so, and Leofric kept his promise, reducing the taxes. Lady Godiva became the town's popular heroine. A statue of her stands in the main square of the city.

Peeping Tom: This expression dates from these events. The townspeople pledged to remain behind shuttered windows during Godiva's ride, out of respect for their benefactress. But a tailor named Tom broke the pledge by peeping through a window. According to the legend, the hapless Tom was blinded for his audacity.

Industrial Growth: Rapid expansion of industry began around 1875, making Coventry the center of the modern bicycle and auto industry. In 1869, the first English bicycle was built in Coventry, and in 1896 the Daimler Co. (a German subsidiary) built the first car. Today, the famous Jaguar is assembled in Coventry.

WW II: All this concentrated industry made the city an inviting target during the German Blitz. Several heavy air raids took place between 1940 and 1942: Coventry was the most-bombed British city after London. Overall, some 67,000 houses were damaged, and the city center was devastated. Most famous air raid of all occurred on Nov. 14, 1940: the first German air raid on a British town. After several hours of bombardment by over 600 planes, the priceless 14th century cathedral was gutted. There was no way to rebuild it; a new one had to take its place.

Coventry Cathedral: (The ruins of the original and the new cathedral stand side by side). The new cathedral was built, partly with West German funds, and dedicated in 1962. It became the immediate subject of controversy for its daring innovations in design, decoration, and stained glass. The main feature is the huge altar tapestry by Graham Sutherland, it is said to be the largest tapestry in the world. The stained glass windows are full of abstract designs; modern secular heroes like Albert Schweitzer and other humanitarians take the place of the usual medieval saints. On the altar of the original, bombed-out cathedral is the famous motto, "Father Forgive."

Leicestershire  Or County of Leicester, of which the city of Leicester is the county seat. Over the centuries, this was fox hunting territory, drawing kings and nobles here for the sport. The most noted breeds of foxhounds were raised here: the Quorn, Cottesmore, Pytchley, and Belvoir. A famed Roman road passed through here, known as the Fosse Way, and on that road stands the city of Leicester. The road brought Roman legions through the area on their way up to the Scottish border region. Famous cheeses come from Leicestershire, including the celebrated Stilton (named for the town, but the cheese actually comes from Leicester). Another gastronomic specialty of the county is Melton Mowbray pork pie (from the town of Mowbray).

Leicester (Population 280,000)  Today an industrial center (hosiery, electrical works, textiles), this is an ancient city, with many Roman ruins. The Romans called it Ratae Coritanorum; it was an important way-station on the Roman road called Fosse Way. Over 144 Roman pavements have been unearthed. A famous old ruin is called Jewry Wall, because it ran through the Jewish district; the wall measures over 70 feet long and 20 feet high. During the period of Dark Ages, there were many violent raids on English towns by the Danes. In 878, the Treaty of Wedmore brought temporary peace by giving five towns to the Danes, where the "Danelaw" (Law of the Danes) would prevail. Leicester was one of the towns. In 941, however, King Edmund regained the town. Richard III, the notorious hunchbacked, murdering York king, spent his last night before the fatal Battle of Bosworth Field in Leicester. He lost the battle and his life, and was brought into the town for burial at Grey Friars' Church. Later, under Henry VIII, who dissolved the monasteries and plundered their wealth, Richard's bones were dug up and thrown into the river from Bow Bridge (which still stands).

Loughborough  The second largest town in Leicestershire, and noted for its bell foundries, which have produced some of the most famous bells in history: Great Paul (17 tons, made in 1881), largest bell in the British Empire, now in St. Paul's Cathedral, London.

Nottingham (Population 300,000)  The county seat of Nottinghamshire, our next county. Tradition claims that the town was founded by the Danes (9th century). Became very early a major center for lace and hosiery manufacture, a local craft which the Danes might have cultivated. The town's medieval Market Place is the largest in the country, though it's no longer used as a market. The annual Goose Fair used to be held in the market every October. Many old buildings survive in the city, including several ancient inns. One of them is called Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, and the story is that it became popular with Crusaders in the 13th century, who were either going to or coming from Jerusalem. The town is dominated by its medieval castle, perched up on a crag; the original of the castle was built by William the Conqueror. The English Civil War officially began in Nottingham when King Charles I raised his banner on Standard Hill in 1642, preparing to do battle with the army of Parliament, led by Cromwell. Ironically, the war ended (near) here as well, when Charles I surrendered to an army of Scots in the town of Southwell, 10 miles to the northeast. Today, Nottingham has an active theater: the Playhouse is a cylindrically-shaped theater, and the Theater Royal presents opera and ballets as well.

Sherwood Forest  Not much remains of the original haunt of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, but you can see fringes of it northwest of Nottingham on the Motorway. (Most of the original forest extended farther east, due north of Nottingham, especially in the area around Ollerton). Over the centuries the forest was turned into farming land, but many of the original, huge oaks were spared. Many of the original stretches of forest were saved by being bought up by nobles and made into large private parks. So many nobles created parks that the area north of Nottingham became known as the Dukeries (from all the dukes owning forest parks). Of these parks, Welbeck is the best known. Here, the Duke of Portland built underground reception rooms, passages, galleries in the 19th century, and the duke's eccentricity attracted great interest in the estate. Such parks as these are about all that survive of Robin Hood's Sherwood Forest.

Legend of Robin Hood: The tales of Robin Hood are a blend of fiction, fact, and fancy, and doubts have been expressed as to his very existence. Though history is largely silent, there are some authentic references, and it would seem to be the case that the stories are based on some fact. According to tradition, Robin Hood died in 1247 at the age of 87: his "grave" is in the town of Kirklees, in Yorkshire. Now we know from history that the late 12th century was a time when the Normans imposed harsh laws to govern their forests, and many a Saxon defied those laws to hunt venison (deer) in the forests. Naturally, such "outlaws" became local heroes, since they represented Saxon pride and independence against the ruling Normans. Stories of their exploits in eluding the local sheriffs were handed down from one generation to another. Robin Hood is probably a composite of all those Saxons who defied the laws of the Norman overlords and tried to preserve the freedom of the forest. As far as Sherwood Forest is concerned, there is a record of a trial for trespass being held as long ago as 1160 — about the time Robin Hood was supposed to be in action — and the forest remained a possession of he Crown until the 18th century, when various sections were sold to local landowners. So Perhaps there was a Robin Hood, whose own personality and deeds mingled with those of others to form the tales familiar to us.

Bolsover  To our right, is an example of the industrial towns we're coming to as we proceed deeper into the Industrial Midlands, the area of England where the Industrial Revolution took place in the 18th century and became the commercial and industrial boom of the 19th century. Yet history has not been drowned out completely here; the town is dominated by Bolsover Castle, which goes all the way back to William Peveril, son of William the Conqueror (11th century).

Chesterfield  Off to our left, is another example: an industrial center for coal mining and iron foundries, yet it has its famous "twisted spire" that has become the town's nickname. The spire is on the Church of St. Mary and All Saints (14 century), and reaches up 230 feet, with lead tiles in herringbone pattern.

Sheffield (Population 500,000), off the Motorway to our left, is one of the chief industrial centers of the Midlands. Its specialty: cutlery. For centuries, "Sheffield silverware" has been an item of prestige and precision craftsmanship. As early as 1161, a group of monks were working four furnaces at nearby Kimberworth. By 1378, a Sheffield "thwitel" (knife) was so well known that Chaucer refers to one in his Canterbury Tales. Eventually, water power was used for the grinding of cutlery, and this expanded the industry. By 1614 there were 182 master cutlers. The population of the city, however, remained small; in the 18th century, it was only 15,000, and in early 19th century was still below 50,000. Since that time, Sheffield enjoyed almost a monopoly on the English cutlery trade. Many fine examples of this craftsmanship can be seen in the city Museum. Civic ceremonies still reflect the importance of cutlery: the office of Master Cutler ranks next to that of the Lord Mayor. In September there occurs the annual Cutler's Feast, which has come to be an important political occasion (political deals, politicking, etc.). The Cutler's Company, established in 1624, is a ceremonial "guild" which still has the authority to issue trade marks (i.e.. "Sheffield" engraved on cutlery).

Doncaster  Off the Motorway to our right is another busy industrial town. Its specialty is iron working. The town sits on the River Don, hence the name. ("-caster", "-chester," or "-cester" are common suffixes all coming from the Latin castrum, fort). The many coal mines in the area feed these iron and steel works. There is also agricultural activity, as foodstuffs are brought in for packaging and marketing. A local tradition is holding horse races on the Town Moor, a custom going back to 1615.

Leeds  Also off the Motorway and to our left, is the largest city and commercial center of the county of Yorkshire. (Population 550,000) It is the heart of Britain's clothing industry, as you'd expect in view of the cotton and wool processing in the cities nearby. Like other manufacturing centers, Leeds has restored much of its downtown area, and adding facilities to handle traffic and shopping crowds. Also like other industrial towns, it continues to sponsor cultural activities to relieve the urban monotony: first-class shops, theaters, and the famed University of Leeds give the city a cultural life of its own. In Leeds is the Leeds City Varities, the only music hall in England which still puts on a different show every week; this vaudeville tradition at the Varities goes back 200 years.

(COURIER: Now start your introduction to York).


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