This is England, part 1

 

I haven't really seen the country, I've only been there/here a few times and more than two-thirds of them in London. Most people I talked to would not move there, would rather stay where they are, in busy Europe or "somewhere better". For most, England is London and London vouches for all British.

Fortunately for me, this year I got to see real England. I first travelled to the southeast but I steered clear of the big cities. I only peeped through in Winchester and Southampton. From Hampshire to Sussex, Kent and Essex, England is a realm of variation and beauty.

This time I'm in Staffordshire, in the Midlands where I was told there were only coal mines and grim industry. I was wrong to assume that was right. A lot changed over the years. I got to Keele, this small village with a generous university campus and I understood what rural countryside means in the 21st century.

But I come back to my initial question. Why do I like England? I went to my room at Keele Management Centre, a B&B with a lot of facilities for a rural establishment and the first thing I heard on the bed-built-in radio was some 16th century choral polyphony music. That happens to be my favourite genre and I was thrilled to be able to listen to that while there were cows and the greenest pasture lands outside my window. It seemed to be coming from nowhere and that gave me a sense of excitement.

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And that's not all. Today I went on a field trip to a place I thought was extinct: a 15th century lived-in manor house. Well, Europe is filled with antique buildings but to actually see a half-timber house that people still live in is quite remarkable. Built in the 1470s, the Gawsworth Hall is a fairytale house. With glazed windows and wooden-pegged beams, this living museum is a thrill to look at. I marveled at the condition the house was in. The Tudor library in particular was fascinating. Unfortunately I wasn't allowed to take pictures inside the house so all I have is words and mental pictures. I even talked to the owner of the house, a mustached middle-aged fellow with a rich sense of humour and deep pockets, as it appeared from the house's recent history. While I know he bought the house some 30 or 40 years ago, I wasn't quite able to find out just how much the whole estate was worth in the 1960s when the transaction was completed.

Standing in the Elizabethan inner garden one can see the harmony of the timber-frame structure of the house. The brick chimneys are the only architectural element that is indicative of later additions to the basic 15th century building. It is easily imaginable, however, how fragile and shaky this residence must have been in the good old days. I can tell you that I had a hard time moving around inside from one room to another. In addition to the low ceiling, there were two-step thresholds running from the wings to the central piece of the house. Without a candle and good knowledge of the house, a stroll around the house after dusk can turn out to be quite a tricky business. Nevertheless, all these inconveniences pale into insignificance once you step inside the house and look around. The walls carry nothing more than the old white plaster and the wooden frame that gives the house its impressive look. Seeing the wooden beams coming so close to the head and running to close to each other is a testament to how important the wooden frame actually is. It was not decorative as one would expect to see nowadays (it is indeed fashionable in this day and age to have a half-timber façade to a stone or concrete house)

I shall pass now to something else that caught my attention, namely the glazed windows. I now realize however that I wasn't supposed to describe this beautiful house but to run some ideas through and tell you more about my experience in England. But let me finish with the windows. In a word, their construction bore more resemblance to the church stained-glass windows than to modern windows, and that's because they were not of a single piece but of many, fixed in lead frames, just as the stained-glass windows are made of small pieces of glass held together by a lead inner structure. Quite impressive, isn't it? This shows how wealthy the original owner was to afford such luxury. Of course, he must have needed more funds to get some colour done to his windows but even as it is, it is striking to see such a thing.

Later that day (as that already became yesterday and I'm as lazy as a Cheshire cat) I took a footpath crossing two fields of corn and wheat, athough the latter must easily have been barley or oats, who can tell, not me, that's for sure. Anyhow, this long straight path seemed to connect the village of Keele to what looked like a busy road on the other side of the fields. I went therefore down this path, took pictures and listened to my faithful Thomas Tallis going from melancholy to anguish when suddenly I saw a blue silhouette somewhere far down the road slightly moving towards me. I couldn't really make out the movement unless I stopped for a second or two and carefully looked in that direction only to see what turned out to be one person seemingly walking towards me. I was at the end of my walk and I decided to turn around and walk back. Some ten seconds later, I looked back to see how my blue fellow was doing. He was incredibly close for someone who appeared to be walking. This may turn out to be a boring story for most of you, but for me, as I grew up in a communist city with stray dogs for animal company (and some cats, if truth be told) it was quite a sight. Half a minute later I looked over my shoulder again and I could see that my fellow was indeed a fellow but he was not alone: he was on horseback. I was so excited to see that in the 21st century when all I could here as a pupil was that the only last villages in Europe are in my country and that everyone else in the civilized world lived in greenhouse-looking cities. It's not a big deal, I know, but I was still thrilled to see a horse casually treading down the footpath with a smiling chap on its back.

If you want to see slightly more pictures from my trip to Staffordshire and Cheshire, click here and that will take you directly to my photo page on Flickr.

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