Send ‘Em to Whitby! (Happy Halloween)

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Whitby, England. Beautiful . . . and a little spooky. (old postcard)

If you’re yearning for an atmospheric English town with cobbled and winding streets, hugging the seaside in crannies and cliffs, and teaming with a sense of menace as the sun goes down, then you’re due a trip to Whitby.

Can you find Scarborough? (red dot)
Can you find Scarborough?

Whitby lies in the northern corner of North Yorkshire, a close neighbor to Scarborough, and is a popular seaside retreat.  But it’s not all sea spray and fish and chips here.  It’s not all Victorian boardwalks, either.  No,  Whitby’s greatest claim to fame may be as part of the setting of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (And you thought you were safe this Halloween if you just steered clear of Transylvania.  Wrong!)

In the gothic tale, Dracula is aboard the ship The Demeter and is shipwrecked on the Yorkshire shore.   He then storms Whitby in the form of a dark dog, runs up the hill to St. Mary’s Church and the Abbey and graveyard above the city,  and soon terrorizes his victims as the vampire that he is.

Looking out to the mouth of the harbor, thinking of Dracula's shipwreck.
Looking out to the mouth of the harbor, thinking of Dracula’s shipwreck.

In fact, Bram Stoker did visit Whitby, and it seems to be where much of his story took root in local history and scenery.  The Demeter  shipwreck was based on a true incident — the shipwreck of The Demetrius, a ship full of coffins being transported for burial . . . a grim cargo that proceeded to wash ashore on the town’s beaches for days after the accident.

The city of Whitby is lovely and would certainly survive as a traveler’s destination without the legend of Dracula, but she has been forever tied to the story now.  And the city is all too happy to play up its link to the blood-thirsty Count.  There are plenty of Dracula tours, books, and plaques to remind visitors of the city’s link to the gruesome story.  It’s all in fun.

Unless, of course, you are excessively squeamish . . . or  roughly four years old.

My children were taking this all in, and William, very young at the time, was growing a little skittish about Whitby.  He constantly looked over his shoulder, he stayed close by our sides (unusual for the  turbo-charged kid who usually ran yards ahead of us), and by the end of the day he was loudly and frequently proclaiming his dislike of Whitby.

My son never mentioned Dracula in his complaints; still, he was very clear about his feelings: he would never go back to Whitby.  Never.  Ever.  It wasn’t his kind of town at all.

So we never did go back to Whitby.   But we came close.

A few months after our visit to the sinister town, we had an unwanted visitor in our house.  A small, furry, unwanted visitor.  A mouse was stalking my son’s bedroom and, it seemed, spending time under his bed while William was asleep.  While this didn’t make me any too happy, it really upset Will.  We wanted to catch this rodent and catch him fast.  However, I have a soft spot for animals and was hoping that a catch and release plan would be possible.

My son and I walked to the local hardware store one morning to discuss humane mousetraps and my desire to re-house this mouse.  The owner looked at me like I was a truly daft American.  He produced a humane trap from his backroom, but shook his head at my plan.  “It won’t work,” he said.  “You won’t get rid of that mouse,” he continued, “unless you take it many  miles away, it will just come back to its home.”  (Its home, of course, being my  home.)

I imagine this man was overstating just how far a little mouse’s legs could carry him, but before I could question the store owner  my tiny son shouted out, “Let’s take him to Whitby!  We’ll take him to Whitby!”  (I should note that Whitby was an hour and a half from our home.)

The store owner looked at my son, then returned his gaze to me– registering that we Americans were even more daft than he had originally suspected.  I was in no mood to fight his assessment:  I took the trap, told my son that was a great idea, and quickly left the shop.*

For years after, whenever someone at our house was badly behaved, they were told that they’d better straighten up  or we’d take them to Whitby.   A terrible fate indeed– a place only fit for the  worst and most wicked.

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Photo of erosion, from the Daily Mail

Although not really–it’s a very nice town.  Except that. . . well, it almost does seem that something is a little off about Whitby.  The cliffs over Whitby began crumbing just three years ago:  a potential disaster for the church.  If they can’t stop the erosion, St. Mary’s could soon tumble into the sea.  Locals are watching the situation with concern, and more than a little dread and disgust:  the homeowners below the eroding cliff report that skulls and bones  are falling from the sky into their backyards.  The crumbling cliff is the church’s graveyard!  This is like the wreck of The Demetrius all over again.  It doesn’t bode well, my friends. . . it doesn’t bode well.

So a word to the wise:  if you are naughty enough to get sent to Whitby any time soon, make sure to pack your garlic necklace.    Happy Halloween!

*   *   *  *

A few more photos from Whitby:

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Near the top of the 199 steps up to Whitby Abbey.

 

Above the harbor at Whitby, high up on the cliffs, sits Whitby Abbey– or the ruins of it, anyway.  It was to the abbey and graveyard that Dracula ran, up 199 stairs that are still there today.

If you make it up the stairs (not such a bad climb), you have a great view of the city and the harbor below.

 

 

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If I were designing this postcard, it would have a little grey mouse at its center!

 

 

*Our little mouse never did make it to Whitby.  He met a different, but sad, end that  I’d rather not discuss.

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Eating Local: Breaking Bread in Turkey

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On the “Antik Road” in Cappadocia. (1998) A local family cooking flatbread over an outdoor oven in Guzelyurt, Turkey. They shared the bread with us–it was delicious!

via Photo Challenge: Local

It was a crisp day in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, and my husband and I were out walking through the town of Guzelyurt– a small town set outside of the larger and more tourist-populated areas of Cappadocia.  (“Guzelyurt” means beautiful valley.)

We would often visit and stay in Otel Karballa there: a lovely structure that

had once been a Greek monastery, but was now converted to a small hotel with a fantastic chef and the ability to give its guests an authentic taste of life and history in this enchanting region.

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goremeThis area of Turkey is fascinating– so well known for its natural beauty and unusual landscape, as well as its long and illustrious history.   In fact, the two things go hand in hand.  The famous “fairy chimneys” of Cappadocia housed the cave dwellers of the Bronze Age, and later housed early Christian refugees and gave rise to the thousands of cave churches that dot the region.

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A fuzzy photo from one trip to Cappadocia: at the mouth of a cave church, with dwelling areas above it.

alanya-turkeye-193Once inside these churches, you are often  met with once-beautiful frescoes that (while still beautiful) are severely weathered by both age and ordeal.  Age, because most of the churches here date to between the 6th and 11th centuries; ordeal, as they were intentionally defaced because of religious aniconic sentiments.

If the cave dwellings and the colorful history weren’t enough to make Cappadocia a fantastic destination, it has this going for it:  it’s no artifact, it’s still living.  The potteries of the region are thriving, the people are hospitable, and many locals still live in the hollowed out cave dwellings (and have wired them for electricity!).

Walking down one ancient road in Guzelyurt, you might look up to see this:

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only to believe that you are passing by empty, ancient buildings (but note the electrical wires that run the length of the road).  Then the next thing you stumble upon, two doors down, is the family from the lead photo on this post, huddled in the doorway of another ancient structure and adjoining cave and making their daily flatbread over a simple fire and dome of hot metal.

 

The ancient meets the everyday in the streets and valleys of Cappadocia,  the modern meets the miraculous.  For my husband and me, who grew up in the tidy convenience of suburban America and were more likely to take dinner  from a casserole dish hot out of a Kenmore oven, or even from a drive-through  fast food window,  this family, hard at work to make their daily bread, kneaded and rolled on a board on the ground and cooked over an open fire on a humble metal dome, this moment was extraordinary.  And so very ordinary too.

We stopped and spoke to the family.  We shared what little language we knew, and they shared some of their bread , warm and crisp from the fire. I don’t think anything has ever been more delicious than those few bites shared on an ancient road.  What an incredible way to eat local.

 

Remembering Days at Alnwick Castle

via Photo Challenge: Nostalgia

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Move over Lancelot and Guinevere, Harry and Hermione– we’re storming the castle! (Alnwick Castle, 2006)

Traveling through the UK with my two knee-high knights was always a good time.  It’s easy to see a photo these days (when both of my kids have grown to my height) and feel a twinge of nostalgia.  But since moving back to the States recently, I’m a little overwhelmed by waves of nostalgia.  It’s a problem.  Nostalgia is a great place to visit, but it’s no place to live.  I’m aware of that.  And I know that, as I move forward with this blog (I still have plenty of stories and photos to share, and hopefully new travels in the works too), I don’t want this fug of nostalgia to take over entirely.

But, when logging into my blog account last week, I noticed many– so very many– other blog posts popping up about Nostalgia-this and Nostalgia-that.  I laughed a little, thinking the internet was riding some wistful wave–a viral mood gripping its readers as the autumn chill and  our nesting instincts kicked in.  As it turns out, that wasn’t it at all.  Wordpress had posted a weekly photo challenge entitled “Nostalgia.”   People were jumping on board the theme.

Although I’m a few days late for the weekly challenge, I think this gives me free reign to go nostalgic this week.  I’m sure it won’t be the last time my posts take this tone, but I hope (for both our sakes) that a little indulgence of my nostalgic mood will help it to pass.

Old Railway Poster: Alnwick Castle, aka Hogwarts. (Alnwick was used in many scenes from the Harry Potter films.)
Old Railway Poster: Alnwick Castle, aka Hogwarts. (Alnwick was used in many scenes from the Harry Potter films.)

On offer today: some photos, and a few notes, from Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, England.  (“Alnwick” is pronounced “An-nick”)

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Alnwick Castle – copyright J. Stringer, licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

 

Alnwick, on the river Aln, is set by the coast in Northumberland.  It is a couple of hours north of our old homebase of Ripon, N.Yorkshire, and a couple of hours south of Edinburgh.  That made it a great stopping off point when we would drive the beautiful coastal road up to Edinburgh . . . but it was also a great destination in its own right.

Alnwick Castle is, was, and quite possibly always will be, home to the Duke of Northumberland.  The family still lives in the castle, and, although tourism is big business for the castle, it is still very much a family home.  There are family photos in the living areas, family stories told by tour guides, and, if you are lucky, plenty of family sightings.

On one visit there, we had to scurry quickly through one of the stone entrance gates to make way for the Duchess of Northumberland to drive through.  (Jane Percy gave us an appreciative nod as she motored her convertible Audi through the gate– she was gracious and graceful, and yes, I envied her life in the castle and the convertible just a bit.)

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A family affair: we make the castle ours, if only for an afternoon.

Alnwick Castle is about 1,000 years old–yes, you heard that right.  Some nip, tuck, and augmentation over the years, but she’s a medieval beauty with a fantastic backstory (both illustrious and checkered) of exploits in British history.  Much of her prominence owes to the fact that she sits near the present day Scottish border.  The border lands have long been disputed territory, so Alnwick was strategically important. Her most famous son was Harry “Hotspur” Percy.  He became a knight, Sir Harry Hotspur (I kid you not), who earned some fame for his military prowess, and later for rebelling against Henry IV.

 

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Alnwick as Hogwarts–quidditch lesson

But Alnwick’s past often takes a backseat for tourists who know her better as the backdrop for many scenes in the Harry Potter films and the Downtown Abbey Christmas Special.   Nevermind that– the Percy family is glad to entertain Potter fans and sneaky enough to slip a little British history into their experience, even if they only showed up to frolic on the Quidditch Lawn.

The Alnwick Treehouse
The Alnwick Treehouse

The grounds of Alnwick are beautiful and extensive.  The gardens are certainly worth a tour and they will surprise you.  There is a poison garden (clearly needed for horticulture and potions classes at a Hogwarts proxy) and the massive Treehouse restaurant that will blow your mind if you are, or ever were, a child.  When I was little, I used to dream of being part of the Swiss Family Robinson, just for the tree house– but this tree house puts that one to shame!  Also, the food is supposed to be fantastic. . . we never ate there, owing to very young children who were only interested in running full throttle through the structure.  (Only an adult would climb into  a huge treehouse and immediately set themselves in a seat, right?)

The Percy family dining room, impossible not to covet. Image from Alnwick Castle website.
The Percy family dining room, impossible not to covet. Image from Alnwick Castle website.

As you can imagine, the interior rooms of Alnwick are extraordinary. My favorite rooms were the dining room and the library.  The library is grand, but also filled with family touches that remind you that this space isn’t a museum, it is very much a family home.  My only complaint with this room is that Jane Percy, in a misguided fit of whimsy (that steered right past whimsy and landed in the territory of macabre), has on display a taxidermied dog.  Yes, a stuffed dog.  (Not her own, we were assured.)  This is a step too far. . . even for a colorful dutchess who lives in a 1,000 year old castle.  Not cool, Jane Percy, not cool.

Moving on.

Training the next generation of Hotspurs.
Training the next generation of Hotspurs.

Alnwick boasts a “Knights’ School” tucked into one of its courtyards, where children can have some hands-on time sharpening their medieval knight’s skills.  (The lead off photo on this post is my kids at the Knights’ School.)  By our second visit to Alnwick (nine or ten years ago), there were also Harry Potter exhibits (tastefully) in place around the castle.  I expect there might be even more Potter Paraphernalia in place these days.  It’s all in good fun, and the Percy’s seem to develop these exhibits and activities in ways that feel right and respectful to the space.

On that second visit, we stayed overnight in a small hotel in Alnwick (I can’t recall the name).  It was simple, but comfortable, and the English breakfast was fantastic.  It was a “Full English Breakfast” with toast, beans, eggs, tomato, sausage and bacon, and black pudding.  I couldn’t face the black pudding (a highly seasoned blood sausage, sliced and fried) –a little too medieval for me.  Honestly, I dodged a few items on the menu, having a pork allergy– but I always wonder how anyone can consume a “Full English” and still be ambulatory at 8 o’clock in the  morning.  That much food for breakfast would send me moaning back to bed. But I digress.

Hanging out where the Harry Potter cast and crew stayed.
Hanging out where the Harry Potter cast and crew stayed.

The thing more impressive than the breakfast itself was the fact that we found ourselves eating under a signed photo and note from the cast of Harry Potter #1– a photo of, and signed by, the all important trifecta of young wizards, Harry, Ron, and Hermione.  I think parts of the cast and crew had stayed in the hotel during filming.  I would guess that half of the hotels in Alnwick would have been filled with cast and crew, it was such a big production in a small town.   Anyway, it brought a smile to our faces to sit under the gaze of our favorite wizards. (We may have gone to Knights’ School to learn to be Hotspurs, but our hearts have always yearned to be wizards!)

Although the castle dominates the town, there is plenty to do on a stroll through the town of Alnwick too.  Great restaurants and pubs, some lovely, small antique shops, and a bookstore that I still vividly remember 10 years later–very impressive.  Barter Books is housed in a former  Victorian Rail Station and is massive, with books new and used, fireplaces and cozy chairs, and a tea room right there in the store.  You might disappear into this place on a rainy day and not come back out until closing time.  (Unless, like us, you have two young “Hotspurs” running in circles and dragging you on to the next adventure.)

And so, Alnwick has a little something for everyone . . . or a little of everything for everyone.  It has history and Hollywood, medieval and muggle, sprawling grounds and mile-long dining rooms, tree houses and train stations . . .it has charm.   Who wouldn’t get nostalgic about days spent there?

Alnwick Castle painting, by J.M.W. Turner
Alnwick Castle painting, by J.M.W. Turner

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Halloween: This Old House

The house in Germany:  although we’ve packed up and left it, it hasn’t left us.

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Images of autumn and Halloween are starting to flood the internet, and I’m sitting here in Florida thinking that it’s still too hot to plant pansies, wear a sweater, or start the full-on (and often pumpkin inspired) baking frenzy that I feel compelled to throw myself into this time of year.  (I bake in the autumn the way birds migrate: I can’t help myself, it seems to be woven into the fabric of my being.)

I love my new environs in Florida, for all of the reasons this place inspires love:  the dolphins I’ve watched in the past week; the great horned owl who graces our backyard; the glistening bay, beach, and boat docks that I walk to with my dog every evening.

But the interminable summer is a little frustrating for a girl who loves four seasons.  So today, I give you this wistful image– the old house in Germany in a tinted Halloween mashup.  Old, creaky, spooky, beautiful . . . and autumnal.

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Boo!

Happy Halloween!!

 

 

* JNW’s Halloween Challenge