All posts by Susan

New York, New York

We flew up from San Francisco to arrive in New York in the middle of a freak heat wave.  The average temperature in New York in May is around 61oF (16oC), although the locals told us it had been much colder than that the week before.  It was 95oF during our stay.  We arrived at JFK at about 20.00, too late to realise how hot it was during the day.  We collected our bags, and got a cab straight to our hotel.  The system at JFK is, in my opinion, better than at Heathrow.  Slicker and quicker.  You check in with the agent, get the cab they assign you and off you trot.

We hadn’t been able to get into the hotel I’d wanted, in East 42nd, so we’d been booked into our hotel very close to Times Square, in West 40th.  The Distrikt Hotel is quite modern, the reception staff were huge fun and very helpful, and there was a birthday cupcake and birthday card in our room.  I’d recommend it.  Funny thing was that in our first trip in the lift, we met another English woman staying there on business.  We unpacked and generally sorted ourselves out, and went to the bar.

We had already booked a trip to Liberty Island for the next day, fortunately not too early in the morning.  We took the Subway to Battery Park, picked up our tickets and then joined the very long queue.  Security here was better than at the airport, the searches were very thorough, which is why there was such a long queue.

Liberty Island has a varied and interesting history.  It was renamed as such in 1956, by an act of Congress although it has had several names over the centuries.  As far back as the mid 17th century, the waters in Upper New York Bay were home to Oyster beds which became a major food source for immigrant Dutch Settlers who named it Great Oyster Island.

In 1664, the Dutch surrendered to the British, the island became British and was eventually sold to Isaac Bedloe in 1667, thus becoming Bedloe’s Island.  Having been a private island for rental and a smallpox quarantine, it later became a sanctuary for loyalist during the American Revolutionary War.

In the 19th century, it became home to Fort Wood, and was chosen to be the home for what it is now best known for, the Statue of Liberty, in the 1880s.  The Statue of Liberty was a gift to the people of America by the people of France, something to do with solidarity after the revolutions in both countries.  The sculptor, Frederic Bartholdi, modelled the statue on his mother.

I’m not sure why I should have been surprised, but I was, to learn (a) that the statue is hollow and (b) that the copper is only about the thickness of a one cent coin.  As well as the Statue of Liberty, there is a museum on the island, and a number of other smaller statues.


When we’d finished, we took the subway back to Times Square and went back to the hotel.  Dinner was a local Chinese, followed by an early night, ready for the next day.


© Susan Shirley 2018


San Francisco

We arrived in San Francisco late, and reached our hotel at about midnight, shattered.  We later discovered that our hotel was quite a way outside of the city centre, a bus ride away.

The hotel reception area was an eclectic mix of artefacts from different countries – Thailand, China, Africa are my best guesses.  It was roomy and the reception clerks were humorous and made us feel at home straight away.  Our room was nowhere near as big as the rooms we’d become accustomed to, although it was clean and had everything we needed, including a coffee machine.  It had a fan but didn’t need the air con we’d had in Nawleans and Memphis (mind you, we hadn’t needed that so much there either). More importantly, they had “happy half hour” in reception between 5.30pm and 6pm every night, where all guests were given free drinks and live music was provided.  Very civilised.

We found out from some other guests that rooms here were $200 a night (we had no idea of room prices because it was all part of a package for us) and, having spoken to some young Irish girls who told us how expensive it was to live in SanFran (even more expensive than London) I began to warm to the area in which I was staying.

We didn’t have to rush too much on our first day, we only had to pick up our pre-paid tickets for the hop-on-hop-off bus tour.

“We need to turn right out of the hotel,” I said, “Then right again down here.”

I didn’t have my customary compass with me, so how the hell I thought I knew which direction I thought I was walking is anybody’s guess.  We walked for about an hour, and, having walked past more homeless people than  I ever see in London (I later discovered that San Francisco has a huge homeless problem) we ended up in an area that looked very prosperous but had very few pedestrians.  This was not where we were supposed to be.

Eventually, we found someone to ask, who told us we were nearer to the Bay Area than the Fisherman’s Wharf area we wanted. Still, it was good exercise.  We found an Irish pub where we stopped for a very late breakfast, and where we met a couple of lovely Irish girls, the ones I mentioned above.  When they told us how much they had to pay in rent, I nearly had a heart attack!  This made London positively cheap.

The Golden Gate

We ended up getting a cab the rest of the way, to Fisherman’s Wharf, picked up our tickets and did our first tour around the city centre.  The heart of San Francisco is pretty much like any other city centre, all the usual designer stores – Ferragamo, Herrera, Tiffany, etc, although, of course, without our English only stores such as John Lewis.

Our cab driver didn’t disappoint us with regard to the hills that made the car chase in Bullitt famous.  There were occasions when I was convinced that we were going to roll backwards, and on more than one occasion during our stay, I thanked the law of gravity.  In fact, I had to remind myself of it, it seemed impossible that we wouldn’t just fall off the Earth, some of the hills were so steep.  If I’d stayed in San Francisco, I’d have lost pounds, just walking up and down.

Later, we found the tour shop in Columbus Avenue, where we exchanged our voucher for our 48-hour hop-on-hop-off tour bus passes.  It just past 15.00 by now, so we decided on the downtown tour that day, before heading back to our hotel for the free drinks reception.

We decided to eat in the hotel that night and didn’t go out again.  I think Kate and I were both surprised at how variable the TV coverage was in each of our hotels.  Of course, we had expected local news, but thus far, national news coverage had been minimal, and the selection of channels was pretty limited.  (On the day we left, we discovered that one of our favourites, NCIS, was showing at 07.00 so we watched that rather than the news.)

Day two in San Francisco meant an early start to get our boat to Alcatraz.  It’s a bit of a must-do in San Francisco although before I got there I had mixed feelings about it.  It’s just over a mile from the mainland, and our guides explained that the prisoners had been transported, shackled at the ankles, on a train.  The train carriage was taken to the island so that they didn’t have to de-train the prisoners until they arrived on the island.  They gave them warm showers on Alcatraz because they didn’t want them to get used to being in cold water lest they get the idea that they should try swimming to escape.

There was a volunteer tour guide who talked us through the first couple of stages up on the island, which had started its life as a military base, but had become a military prison almost immediately and had later become the federal penitentiary for which it is now famous.  At the cell blocks, we were given audio headsets, with our guides ex-prison guards, occasionally interspersed with comments from prisoners.

The main prison blocks, B and C, were grim, the cells being only 5’ by 9’ with a small sink (cold water only), and bed and a toilet.  In D block, segregation, the cells were a bit bigger, but inmates were confined to their cells 24 hours per day, with only one visit to the recreation yard per week.

Part of the remains of Alcatraz

However, it was when we got to solitary confinement that the conditions became really bad.  Although the cells were inside and undercover, you could feel the wind blowing in from outside.  It must have been horrendous in the winter months, even though this part of the world doesn’t have the harsh winters of other parts of the USA.  It was pretty cold on the day we visited.

Further along in this block were cells referred to as “The Hole.”  When prisoners who had behaved even more badly were put in there, they were kept in darkness – according to the audio, once acclimatised, it was possible to see a little light, but still, I imagine that would have had a rather salutary effect.

I hadn’t realised before going to Alcatraz that there had been a rather nasty escape attempt in 1946 in which one of the inmates somehow managed to get into the gun cage and get hold of all the firearms there.  A siege followed, which lasted for two days, during which time two prison guards were killed.

There were significantly more escape attempts than I’d realised, some of which were partially successful, in as much as the men got off the island, but it seems they were all recaptured.

Alcatraz done, we travelled back to San Francisco and got a trolley bus back to our hotel.  For $2.50 each, we had tickets that we could use for us to two and a half hours, plus a good sightseeing tour of the City.

San Francisco from Alcatraz

The following day, we did our mammoth bus tour around the city.  It was a shame that this was to be our last day here, we were just getting to know our way around.   We went back to the hotel to prepare for the Big Apple.

© Susan Shirley 2017

New Orleans Day Three

We had the morning to ourselves before our trip out to a plantation.  Neither Kate nor I had been sleeping very well – we couldn’t seem to get the temperature right in the room, and we spent half the night being too cold, the other half being too hot.  We were waking early every morning too, so we got up early, went out for breakfast (same place as the day before).  This time I tried the cheese grits with my omelette, which were far tastier than the ones I’d had at Maison Dupuy.

We dozed a bit on the way to the Oak Alley Plantation.  It was a lovely venue, although I can understand why the original owner’s wife, Celina, preferred to be in New Orleans. The plantation was owned by Jacques and Celina Roman, although Jacques was not the original owner, his brother-in-law was.  They decided to do a swap of plantations in 1837.

The plantation is named after the path (alley) leading up to the front of the house which is bordered on each side by Southern Oak Trees (nothing like our English Oaks).  It was originally named the Bon Sejour plantation, and grew sugar cane.

One of the things that struck me was the slave quarters.  I have no axe to grind about the Americans and slavery – the Brits were guilty of it too, as well as many other nations, and it’s as bad whoever does it.  It’s just that they had names of some of the slaves who had lived here, and they told the story of slaves by name as you walked around the slave quarters.  It was incredibly moving.  As in sickening. We walked around the slave quarters, reading about the lives of the slaves and seeing the conditions in which they lived.  Grim.

Life was a little easier for the house slaves and I know that, had I been a slave there, I’d have been a field slave (way too gobby to be a house slave).  Some of the house slaves were relegated to field slaves, some were promoted to house slaves.  It almost seemed that, as a slave, you were cast aside like an old sock when you got too old to do your job, or something else went wrong.

The dining room at the plantation. A slave would have had the task of moving the overhead fan.

What a hard life, they even had the women slaves digging for the levees, and other hard field work, although even working in the house would not have been easy in those days.  At least outside you’d get a bit of fresh(ish) air.

The climate in Louisiana is generally humid (seems we were very lucky during our stay, it was not even as humid as London in the height of summer) which must have been awful for anybody working in the fields.  Although it was a beautiful location, I was quite pleased to get back to New Orleans and away from the harsh realities of what life had been like for some people.

A complete change of tack, we tried a different restaurant when we got back, which was quite pleasant.  Kate had a salad for her dinner, which turned out to be a plate of lettuce with chicken.  Not quite what I had imagined although I discovered during our stay that is what passes for a salad in most of the States.  To the extent that there were adverts on the TV in New York advertising salads with other salads vegetables as though it was a real novelty.  Which it clearly was.  I had another local dish with beans and a special request for grilled – not breaded, fried – chicken.

We found a supermarket on the corner of Bourbon Street where we bought a bottle of Californian Champagne to take back to our hotel room, to assist with the packing for the next part of our trip.  (Apologies to the champagne region of France, but that is what it said on the bottle, and it was very palatable.  I suspect, although I didn’t check, that it was made from Chardonnay grapes too.)  Somehow, packing wasn’t quite so hard after that.

We had enjoyed our stay at Maison Dupuy and were now ready for the next part of our journey.


© Susan Shirley 2017

New Orleans Day Two

We ventured out of the restaurant for breakfast on our second day.  Although we didn’t know it at the time of booking, nor did we realise it when we first arrived, Rue Toulouse was in a very handy position – we could walk straight up to the Grayline tours leaving point and the Mississippi, past several bars and restaurants.  It was a win-win.

After our chat to Cathy the day before, Kate and I had decided on a trip to the Louisiana swamp and bayou.  It was a half day tour, which suited us as we had plans for the evening.

It was one of the best tours I have ever done.  We were bussed to the bayou, waited for our captain and boarded our luxury yacht.  Just kidding, it was a custom-built swamp boat; a flat-bottomed boat, not dissimilar to the one in the link:×420/v1/c700x420.jpg

Our skipper was very knowledgeable, although I suppose they all are, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing that job, would they?  He started the tour with the usual health and safety announcements:

“if you drop your camera, tough, we won’t be going back for it.  Keep your arms inside the boat, some of these alligators are big enough to jump up to the job of the boat and if your arm is sticking out, it’ll eat it.”

Right then.

The bayou is surrounded by cypress trees and is basically a series of slow-moving streams or wetlands, often tidal.  Our skipper told us that there had been a bit of a flood a couple of days before, so the water was colder than usual.  I found that strangely comforting when a 12 feet long alligator started swimming around.

It wasn’t just alligators that we saw, there were some beautiful plants and birds, and soft-shelled turtles and opossum – the captain threw marshmallows to them when we saw them on the river bank.

It was the alligator that made it though.  Although we saw a few baby ‘gators, this big old boy kept swimming around us.  He’d swim for a few of the marshmallows, but didn’t really want to play.  Probably too cold.  I couldn’t help but see the similarities to the human skeleton as he was swimming around though.  I almost had a film script…

That evening, we went on a river trip on board the Mississippi Steam Boat Natchez, the last remaining genuine steamboat on the river.  (Yes, there are others that appear to be, but the Natchez is the only one that is a genuine steamboat.)


The current Natchez is the ninth to bear that name, and there is a whole history to it, but that’s a story for another day.  We didn’t have dinner on board, I’m a fussy eater.  Just drinks, a bit of dancing and enjoying the ride up and down the river.  The jazz band was called The Steamboat Stompers.  I’ve done some of those Thames river boat cruises, but being on a boat on the Mighty Mississippi was different again.  It is a huge river and quite amazing to see the factories, and so on, along the river banks.

Sunset at New Orleans

We were glad to only have a short journey home after our boat trip.  We needed to be ready for the following day.

© Susan Shirley 2017

New Orleans (N’Orleans)

Our hotel in New Orleans (N’Orleans) was at the edge of the French Quarter, in Rue Toulouse.  Almost all the roads in the French Quarter are named in French, things like Rue Bourbon, although that’s more commonly known as Bourbon Street.  It’s fabulous, grid system of streets, so it’s easy to follow a map and almost impossible to get lost (except for when you get to the micro level, looking for a particular street number).

Our room in Maison Dupuy

Our hotel, Manson Dupuy, is made from five townhouses joined together, which makes it a bit of a rabbit warren inside, and with a beautiful courtyard, with a swimming pool.  We were tired after all our travelling, so we ate in the hotel that night.  One full quarter of the hotel on the ground floor is the bar and dining room.

We both chose a dish of grilled swordfish with an aubergine purée and vegetables, and some Cava, to celebrate our arrival.  It was good, but all a bit more expensive than we’d been anticipating.  It was the price of good London restaurant where this restaurant was more on a par with Café Rouge (not that there is anything wrong with that at all).  The pound dollar exchange rate was not helping our trip at all.

The following day, we had breakfast in the hotel too.  Kate had scrambled eggs, but I saw something new on the menu…. I had eggs, bacon and grits, a typical Southern dish made from corn meal.  I’d heard about it so wanted to try it.  It was interesting.  Not unpleasant, if a little bland, with a texture similar to a dryish sago pudding.  Not sure I’d rush to have it again.

Canal Street

Then we ventured out for a walk around the City.  We walked up to Canal Street, which is the border of the French Quarter and the Warehouse District, and up to the Mighty Mississippi.  We met a lovely lady, Cathy, at one of the Grayline tourist huts, where we picked up a leaflet about tours we could do while we were there – we’d already booked in for a couple but neither of us wanted to waste our time in this charming city.  We’d already fallen in love.

After a bit more of a wander, we went to our appointed meeting place for our first guided tour, a walking tour of the French Quarter. Our guide, Robi, was very knowledgeable, and filled us with info, I’m just sorry I wasn’t writing it all down.

New Orleans is the largest city in the state of Louisiana.  It’s also a major port, built on both sides of the Mississippi.  The French Quarter is on the north side of the river.  La Nouvelle Orleans, as it was originally known, was founded in 1718 by the French Mississippi Company.  The man who was in charge was Jean-Bapatiste de Bienville,  a name seen on street names.  It was on Chitimacha land, a native American tribe.  The French gave the territory over to the Spanish under the Treaty of Paris in 1763, at the end of the Seven Years War.  Control reverted to the French for a brief period in 1803.

When Kate and I had been sitting in our hotel restaurant, we’d commented that the buildings across the street looked more Spanish than French.  Now I knew why.  In fact, most of the remaining architecture is Spanish, the most notable exception being the Old Ursuline Convent.  Robi showed us various times of architecture through the ages.  Something common in the houses in New Orleans is for the chimney to be in the middle of the house, so heating more than one room at a time.

Ursuline Convent

Napoleon sold New Orleans to the Americans in 1803, and thereafter the city grew with immigrants from many places, including French, Creoles (people descended from colonial Louisianans during the periods of French and Spanish rule) and Americans.  In later times, immigrants came from farther afield.

We had a wonderful afternoon walking around the city, taking in the sights, and finished our tour at the Cabildo, in Jackson Square, now the state museum but formerly the seat of Spanish government.

Robi had recommended a lovely fish restaurant for that evening, Evangeline, in Decatur Street. They had a live band – I’m not going to say it was jazz, some of it was soul, but it was great.  The maitre d’ had been right to seat us inside though, if we’d been in the courtyard, it would have been way too loud for us.

We had a very good Creole meal – I had Creole Jambalya and Kate had Cajun Etoufee – and our first bottle of wine during our trip – a very good Italian Pinot Grigio.  We made our way back to our hotel after that, to get ready for the rest of our trip.


© Susan Shirley 2017

Bodiam Castle, Battle, Hastings

I took myself off for a little trip to Bodiam Castle, Battle and Hastings the other day.  It was a coach tour organised by Abbey Tours.  Bodiam Castle is now a National Trust property, given to them in 1926 by Lord Curzon.  As an aside, I’d use Abbey Tours again, I was very impressed.

Bodiam Castle

Bodiam was built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dallingridge.  Sir Edward was not the oldest son in the family and so did not inherit his father’s fortune.  However, he married wisely (and, as a consequence, became very wealthy).

Sir Edward had been one of Edward III’s knights (known as a King’s Knight) and was given permission to build the castle to defend against French invasion, and, presumably, keep the peasants at bay, since it was built around the time of the Peasants’ Revolt.  He had a bit of a chequered career – he was a member of parliament, and also found himself in prison for a while.  Seems he was a bit of a trend setter…

Bodiam Castle

Bodiam is unusual, if not unique, in that there is no castle keep (the castle within the castle), it’s a rectangular shape, with towers at each of the corners.  It’s a rather lovely building, in my opinion, or maybe I just like castles.  At the time of building, there would have been a barbican over the moat around the castle, now full of huge fish: I’m no expert but I’m guessing at some type of carp.  Or giant goldfish.

Archaeologists believe that the castle was built quickly, and all in one go, unlike many other castles, probably owing to the constant threat of invasion from France.  Whatever the case, poor old Edward didn’t enjoy the fruits of his labour for long, he died in 1395.

The castle was once part of a working estate with farmland, a wharf and a water-mill.  Sir Edward had the site landscaped – it seems that Sir Edward had some of the more fancy bits installed to show his wealth rather than as actual defensive parts of the castle, although the moat was probably defensive as well as decorative.

The inside of the castle was probably dismantled during the English Civil War and later fell into disrepair.  It changed ownership several times until Lord Curzon bought the castle in 1916.  He decided that “so rare a treasure should neither be lost to our country nor desecrated by irreverent hands.”  Curzon was knocked back the first time he tried to buy the castle, but eventually succeeded.

From Bodiam Castle we went onto Battle.


The Battle of Hastings, which wasn’t actually fought at Hastings, but here at Battle, took place on 14 October 1066.

View from the main road

To set the scene, King Edward the Confessor died in January 1066.  He was childless, which always caused a problem with the monarchy: sons were always the preferred heirs, but a daughter would do.  King Edward was a very religious man although I don’t get the feeling that was why he was childless.  Not that the reason matters.

With no heir, there were a number of claimants to the throne.  King Harold was crowned shortly after Edward’s death, but his own brother Tostig (where is the family loyalty???), Harold Hardrada of Norway and William of Normandy all battled for the throne.

Tostig and Hardrada were both defeated, in the north of England, but the battles took their toll.  Harold’s armies had losses and were tired.  William landed in Pevensey on 28 September 1066, forcing Harold to march back south, and to gather an army as he went.

Historians don’t know for sure but they think that Harold had about 7000 troops to William’s 10000.

That might have been ok, except that Harold’s force was almost entirely infantry (foot soldiers) with very few archers, whereas William’s army was roughly evenly split between infantry and a force of cavalry and archers.  Even those of us without any military training can see the way that was going to pan out.

It was a long, tiring battle that started at 09.00 and ended around dusk.  It was a hard battle, during which Harold was killed – famously shot through the eye by an arrow.  There were minor skirmishes after this battle and a fair amount of civil unrest, but William was still crowned on 25 December 1066.

The Heavens opened when we arrived at Battle so I decided not to visit the battlefield on this trip.  I had lunch, a drink and did a spot of shopping.  There are some lovely little boutique shops, Battle Bygones being one that I really loved.  As did many of these little shops, it had a wide range of goods on offer, including a beautiful leather purse with cats on it – obviously, I had to buy that, for use when my beloved Radley dies (it was far less expensive, even though it is beautiful leather).

Lunch was in one of the pubs – I was a bit disappointed to discover that they did do a Sunday roast (which was what I really fancied) rather than the so-called salad that I chose – smoked salted and prawn in a Marie Rose sauce.  The smoked salmon and prawns were fine but it was just on a bed of lettuce, with a few other mixed leaves, a bit of finely sliced cucumber.  What I call, since my most recent trip to America, an American salad.

Fed and watered, I rejoined the coach and we travelled onto Hastings, which, as I was told by our guide, has the longest beach-based fishing in the UK.


Hastings is famous for being one of the cinque ports.  There was a castle, which was washed away in the floods of 1287, which were pretty devastating for the south-east coast of England.  Hastings has no natural harbour, and this was the beginning of the end for it as a port.  On more than one occasion, attempts were made to build a harbour but it wasn’t possible to get the foundations strong enough.

The beach at Hastings

For the Poldark fans among us, it will come as no surprise to learn that Hastings was once a smuggling hub.  Apparently, smuggling was more lucrative than fishing.  Well I never.  Personally, I’d have thought it all a bit exposed, but then I’ve never been a smuggler.  Later, it became popular as a seaside resort, although, like most of them, it’s had mixed fortunes ever since.

Hastings is quite a quaint little town.  In some ways it reminded me of Brighton with the cliff backdrop.  I suppose that’s not surprising since they are so close to each other; both along the south coast, in Sussex.  Similar rock formations, similar landscapes.

I walked along to the East Hill Furnicular Railway and took that up to the nature reserve at the top.  It wasn’t so much cold as blustery, and there was a lot to see in the few hours I had there, so I took a few snaps and took the railway back down.

View from the Furnicular Railway

Then I popped into the Fisherman’s Museum.  Built in the site of an old church, it’s small but has a lot of detail. It was a bit too crowded for me; I like time to browse a museum properly; so I left and took the miniature railway back to the main drag.

After a little walk along the front, I walked down George Street, a quirky little street off the main road.  There are some lovely little boutique shops here that divorce it from the typical seaside town.  Lots of antique shops and even a group playing live music close to one of the big pubs.  Talking of which, I was impressed with how little the drinks cost down here.  It almost made me wish I lived here.  Almost.


© Susan Shirley 2017




Heathrow Atlanta New Orleans


I met Kate at our hotel near to Heathrow, the day before we were due to fly out. Our flight to Atlanta, en route to New Orleans, was due to depart at 09.20, which meant being at the airport at 06.20.
Unfortunately, take off was delayed by an hour. I have no idea why. A couple of uniformed police officers come on board, but no-one was dragged off kicking and screaming. Once you lose your slot at Heathrow, there’s always a wait for a new one. That must have cost Mr Branson a fair few bob.
Our cabin crew were brilliant. Very friendly, very helpful and very chatty. The captain managed to make up much of the lost time, so we were only about 20 minutes late when we arrived at Atlanta. Atlanta International Airport was an experience. There was only one desk at customs for all of us who came in from outside of the US.
I’m not sure whether I had my criminal look about me again, or whether the guy who was checking my passport, etc, was being friendly without smiling. (I get stopped a lot at airports. Always have. I still blush when I remember the young customs officers holding up my scanties on my first trip abroad.) I do know he asked me a lot more questions than he asked my travelling companion.
We got a train from the international airport to the internal flights terminal.
It was cold and wet in Atlanta. It rains a lot there. You can see that from the surrounding countryside. That flight was delayed too. Another security issue.
 As we were boarding the flight, one of the flight attendants greeted us, and I returned a greeting.
“Oh, my, I just love your accent! Where y’all from?”
“Oh, I am gonna come and talk to you just as soon as I get my passengers boarded. I LOVE that accent.”
She didn’t, of course. It was a fairly short flight and Kate and I were letting out the zs even before take off.
New Orleans is in a different time zone from Atlanta, as, of course, is London. We arrived in New Orleans at about 17.10 local time. Baggage reclaim and a swift cab to the hotel and we were ready to begin.
Sunset at New Orleans

© Susan Shirley 2017

Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden

The second day of my visit to Yorkshire was to Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden.

I remember visiting Fountain’s Abbey as a child, with friends of my parents who lived in Middlesbrough.  That was some time ago, so you’d expect things to have changed, and they have.  The last time I went, there was no visitor centre, and I didn’t even know the Royal Water Garden existed!  That’s hardly a surprise though, the estate was bought by West Riding County Council in 1966 (probably after I used to visit, although I can’t swear to that) and was only acquired by the National Trust in 1983.  It is now a UNESCO world heritage site.  The National Trust has become very experienced in making its sites consumer friendly, and this is much more of an experience than just a place to visit. Nature trails and egg hunts for children, and play parks, it very family orientated.

The abbey was originally established in 1135 after some monks from the Benedictine (yes, it was that order that made the liqueur) St Mary’s Abbey in York were expelled and later joined the Cistercian order and, after many problems and troubles, Fountains Abbey was founded and built.  There is a lot more detail to it than that, all related to religious/political fighting.

Although the Abbey is in ruins now, when you walk around it, you can see how stunning it must have been in its heyday.  It is truly magnificent, even now.  I could almost hear the chanting as I walked around.  I am not particularly religious, but I appreciate the work that went into churches and abbeys.  More than appreciate, I love it and I always feel at peace in places like this.

The way the National Trust has set the sight up means, if you stick to the paths (and we did) that you walk past one side of the Abbey, and along to the Water Gardens, and back again.

Back in the fifteenth century, Studley Royal, as the estate and mansion was known, was home to the Mallory’s – a well-known family, two of whom were MPs in the seventeenth century.  The Manor House itself was destroyed by fire in 1946, although a stable block survived, and is now a private house.

We walked around almost all of the water gardens, which was a good walk, and wore out poor little Jess, Becky’s beautiful Bichon Frise.  As you walk back towards the abbey itself, there are areas for children to play, and there is a dedicated playground near to the visitors’ centre.  In true National Trust style, there are regular events for the children too.  It’s a good half or full day out, depending on your age and stamina, and I fully recommend it.


© Susan Shirley 2016







I stayed with my friend, Becky, in North Yorkshire recently. She’s only lived there for a couple of years, and it’s been some time since I’ve been there, so we did the full tourist thing. Our first day out was in York.

I’ve always liked York, but the last few times I’ve been, I’ve only ever had a couple of hours spare on each visit, so spending the day there was a rare treat.

Corner of The Shambles

A bit of history
York is an old city, founded by the Romans in 71 AD, on the confluence of the Ouse and the Foss. It was the capital of the Roman province in the north. The Romans called it Eboracum. After they left, and the Vikings invaded, it became the capital of the kingdom called Jorvik (which comes from the old Norse).

York became a major wool trading centre under Viking rule. It also became very important in the Church of England, after the Reformation. Subsequently, it became home to Suchard chocolate and a major railway hub.

It is likely that the area was first settled in around 8000 BC. By the time the Romans conquered Britain, the general area was inhabited by the Brigante tribe. The city of York was founded in 71 AD by the Ninth Legion.

The Romans left Britain in around 400 AD – they probably left the north earlier than that – and all was reasonably quiet until the Vikings invaded in 866 AD. The Vikings are well-known for their love of water and they made York a major river port, part of their trading route throughout Europe. They were kicked out by King Eadred. In 954 AD.

We all know that William of Normandy successfully invaded in 1066 AD, but two years later, the people of York, sick of having had their butts kicked, rebelled. At first they were successful but William was nothing if not a military strategist and he soon got the raging hump. He went about “Harrying the North,” when he is reputed to have destroyed everything from York to Durham. (I should point out that some scholars say that he could not have done this much damage. I don’t know, I wasn’t there, so we have to go with what we’ve got.)
Notwithstanding that, by the 12th century, York was prospering again, and after being granted a charter by King John in 1212, it became important in trade with France, the Netherlands and further afield.

The Minster was first built as far back as 627 AD, and the City became very important in the Christian Church, so it was a prime target for Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which took place between 1536 and 1541.
In the Civil War, the Roundheads besieged York from 22 April 1644 until 1 July 1644. After the Battle of Marston Moor, York surrendered to Sir Thomas Fairfax.

Inside the Minster

Clifford’s Tower
The old city walls are a short walk from the railway station, so we walked along here before walking up to Clifford’s Tower, the high point of the City. Depictions inside the tower show how the city walls would have linked with it. English Heritage, who owns the site, are making a number of changes, to make the Tower easier to access and to unearth the nineteenth century wall that is buried under the mound, amongst other things.

View across York from Clifford’s Tower

The view from the Tower is beautiful, as you walk around the viewing deck you can see quite some miles. By the way, the Tower will be closed while the restoration work takes place, so check before visiting.
See here for further information:

Taken from Clifford’s Tower

The Jorvik Viking Centre
Our next stop was the Jorvik Viking Centre. This was badly damaged during the flooding a couple of years ago, and has only recently re-opened. We had to queue for about 50 minutes so I’d recommend booking and jumping the long queue. Entry into the centre is across a glass floor (I still can’t get used to that) into a room where there is an AV providing details of the dig. From there, it’s round to a cable car area where you are taken round a depiction of a Viking village.

I hesitate to call them robots, but there are certainly life-sized animated models of humans and animals as the cable car takes you around the village, telling you what life was like. These animated models are throughout until you come to a boat which has two real humans talking as though they were Vikings – a trifle disconcerting.
There were only two human skeletons found when digging the site, which surprised me, however, there were many other artefacts such as coins, jewellery, cookware, etc. I’d definitely recommend this is you have any interest in history at all.

We had a nice lunch in one of the many dog-friendly cafes in the city, The Nook, before making our way back to Becky’s. (We were dog-less on the day in question, but previous visits with her canine have taught Becky where to go.)

York has all the standard shops that you’d expect and a Fenwick as the main department store in the city centre. There is also the Castle Museum, the Railway Museum and the Minster – which is beautiful, although we didn’t do the full tour. It only takes two hours from King’s Cross on the high-speed train – definitely work a visit.

© Susan Shirley 2017

Victorian Women’s Clothing

I’ve written about a few Victorian women recently, which got me to thinking about other aspects of their lives, the first one being clothing.  As someone who loves clothes, especially the simplicity of what we wear nowadays, Victorian women’s clothes are a source of fascination to me.  As a child, up until the age of about 11 or 12, when I managed to persuade my mum it was no longer necessary, I had to wear a petticoat under neath a dress or skirts and blouse, but that was nothing compared what Victorian’s wore.  I dread to think how they coped in the summer!  Here’s a quick run through of the typical clothing worn by Victorian women:

In the early Victorian days, everything was sewn by hand, so there was no mass production of clothes. As a consequence of this, clothing was expensive.  Rich people didn’t have a problem but the poor would probably have made their own clothes and there was a lot of “hand me downing” going on.  Even when I was a child, I remember having “best clothes” (a habit which I still have trouble getting out of) – in Victorian times, best clothes were saved for church on a Sunday, thus referred to as “Sunday best.”  Things did start to change after the invention of the sewing machine in 1851, but it was quite some time before clothes became really cheap.

Florence Nightingale, in typical Victorian dress

The crinoline was invented in 1856 – prior to this, dresses tended to have a simpler, more Empire line shape – think Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.  The crinoline changed all this.  In the early days, it was almost like a circular hoop that filled out the whole of the skirt of the dress, although in later Victorian days, it became just a bustle at the back of the outfit.

Despite this, the underclothes remained pretty much the same.  It started off with stockings, which were really long socks, not what we would think of as stockings.  They stopped just above the knee and were held up with garters.  They weren’t elasticated the way mine were at school, they were lace, which by it’s manufacture, conferred some elastic properties.   By the end of the nineteenth century, the garters were attached to corsets…. I’m still not feeling it.

Emmeline Pankhurst

The important bit of the undergarments were what were in those days called drawers, which were basically flaps of material without a crotch.  I suppose they didn’t feel the cold with a long dress.  A sleeveless chemise which came down to the knees was worn over this.  This formed the first layer of the clothing.

Next came the corset, frequently strengthened with whalebone, sometimes steel.  The corsets fastened up at the front (ribbons were common fastenings) and had draw strings at the back to pull them tighter.  The idea was that they’d pull in at the waist and push up the bust – hence the very pert look we so often see in period dramas.  I’m thinking there are some benefits to corsets, although some women took it to extremes and tied them so tight they could barely breathe.

Four Victorian women, including Marie Curie and her sisters

The actual Crinoline (the name is a combination of the Latin words for hair and linen, because it was originally made from horsehair) was like a steel cage, flexible enough to collapse when sitting and strong enough to support the skirt when standing.  Later on, the crinoline fell from favour and changed to become a bustle, just supporting the back of the skirt, but in the early Victorian days, it was the full thing.

At least one petticoat went on top of this, which would be decorated at the bottom, intended to show under the dress or skirt (it started with one and more became fashionable later in the era).  The upper part of the body was covered by a plain chemise although underwear became more decorative as the era progressed.

Finally, we get to the dress, which might have been one or two pieces.  Again, as the era progressed, it became more common for women to wear separate skirts and blouses.  The dress had all manner of fittings to make it more decorative – collars, cuffs, under-sleeves, etc.  Capes, shawls, jackets would be worn over the top, both inside and out.

Early in the period, flat shoes were worn, but gradually boots became more fashionable, and they became longer, as in higher up the leg, as time went on.

Older and married women all wore caps indoors, outdoors, they were either covered by a bonnet or just a hat was worn.  By the end of the 19th century, caps were no longer generally worn, but hats were worn outdoors.  (I remember my mum always wore a hat outdoors when I was a child, as did my dad, although that changed for both of them by the 1970s.)

Gloves and jewellery, fans and parasols were also important accessories, at least for wealthy women in Victorian times.  It was all very proper – and I dare say hot and uncomfortable.  I wonder where I can get a full outfit to try for a day?


© Susan Shirley 2017