We were loath to leave Chester but eager to see our Globalscope friends in Nottingham. Our final days left us with some more happy memories, like a couple more walks along the canal from our Airbnb home to the heart of the city. It’s not a particularly picturesque scene. The brown water moves slowly, attracting ducks and their feathers and other debris. The accompanying sidewalk attracts bicyclists, strollers, shoppers hurrying to or bearing bags from stores, determined walkers and even more determined joggers. Narrow canal boats attract a different breed of people, those appreciating the slow life, relaxing with drink in hand and a smile for any pedestrians who take the time to glance their way.
This particular canal runs through a dozen locks, lifting or lowering the boats through hand-cranked gates. Joy and I paused to watch a woman crank open the upper gate; a city employee, we surmised, paid by the hour for manual labor unchanged since the canal network was constructed in 1792-1796. We were wrong. She was the “crew” of a canal boat making its way downstream. Her husband was the captain. He guided the boat; she did the work. Kind of like the way our marriage works.
The next day I ran into the same couple, this time chugging their way upstream. They persuaded me (with very little effort) to come aboard and ride to the upper level with them. It was fun. I’d been through Panama Canal and many locks on the Rhone River; by comparison, Chester’s are rather puny. But this friendly couple’s enthusiasm made this an uplifting experience. He’s a retired farmer. He and his “crew” spend several weeks a year exploring England’s canals. They typify the warm, friendly, generous people we’ve met everywhere in England. And not just England.
We ate lunch in town before going on to Grosvenor Park’s Open Air Theatre for a Saturday matinee of Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Chester’s main streets were almost as crowded as a week earlier for the Pride Parade, and this crowd was gussied up. For a wedding? Too many of the. They couldn’t all be wedding guests.
“It’s Chester Race Day,” our waitress informed us, surprised by our ignorance. Everybody knows this is race day! Chester boasts the UK’s oldest continuously operated race track, dating back to the early 16th century. Today’s not just any old race, though. It is Ladies’ Day at the track. Hence the elegant attire, men uncomfortably stuffed into suits and ties and women decked out in a mix of cocktail and formal and Sunday-go-to meeting dresses. If I had known about the horse races in time, I might have tried to persuade Joy to join me at the track instead of the theater. I love horses. It wouldn’t have worked out, though. We didn’t have the proper clothes.
Shakespeare was less fussy. We patrons on the hard bleacher seats (cushions provided) dressed much more casually. We had come to see, not to be seen. What we saw was a rowdy, sometimes raunchy, often hilarious adaptation of the Bard’s beloved fairy tale. Joy had trouble following the plot, as if that mattered. It didn’t. It’s an improbable tale of four young lovers who run away from parental wrath into the woods where they fall prey to a mischievous fairy king and his queen and their obedient servant-spirits. Through a magic elixir, generously misapplied, the queen and the young lovers obsess over the wrong objects of their affection. Chaos breaks out. But this plot is almost the sideshow to the sideshow, which is the play within the play being rehearsed and then produced for the weddings (of the Duke and his Intended and the four young people finally sorted out) by some of Shakespeare’s most unforgettable—and most lovable—clowns/craftsmen. Their delightfully inept reenactment of the ancient myth of Pyramus and Thisbe would have brought the house down—except this outdoor theater has no house.
My excuse for the confusing foregoing paragraph is that there’s no way to succinctly capture the play’s zaniness. A new twist in this version: one of the young male lovers was updated to make a modern political statement. The actor playing Lysander was black and female, so that in the final wedding scene we witnessed the marriage of lovers mixed in color but not in gender. The words were Shakespeare’s, but their application was as relevant and controversial as today’s headlines.
We can’t leave Chester without a word about the town’s famous cathedral, the seat of the Bishop of Chester since 1541. Parts of the building are even older, though, dating back to 1093. Scholars think this site may have been used for Christian worship as early as the Roman times.
Joy was tied up Sunday afternoon so she couldn’t attend the Choral Evensong service with me. She missed a treat. An excellent visiting choir led the service. Like so many ancient cathedrals, the acoustical resonance of this one is superb, leaving this worshiper unable to move for some time after the service was over. The organist mesmerized the handful of us who lingered. I confess that no music reaches me quite the way a cathedral organ does.
That was Sunday. The next morning we left for Nottingham. It took three different trains to get us there. We made every connection without incident, not always the case with us! When we stepped off the train in Nottingham, Globerscopers Christine Barber and Matt Hawkins greeted us–and offered to help with the luggage. We let them.
We are so glad to be visiting campus ministries again. If you followed lawsonsontheloose.net last year, you are already aware that looking in on these CMF-Globalscope operations has been one of our top goals. When we were in Edinburgh and Birmingham in 2016, the Nottingham team hadn’t gathered yet. Now all six members are here, and a pretty impressive lot they are–although they might not look so impressive in this photo taken of our group dinner. For dessert they chose….cotton candy! A more mature group you can’t imagine.
We met together and ate together and laughed a lot. The university students don’t return for autumn term until later this month, so we didn’t get to meet them. This more relaxed time gave us more quality time with the team, discussing their work, their plans, their projected move into their own facility, and the students they’ve already established relations with. This is a contagious, harmonious, visionary group. Their future looks good. I should add also that they know how to take good care of the elderly.
While they worked we played. We knew a little about Nottingham already as the former center for lace production in–I guess in the world. Here in England’s Midlands the industrial revolution was born, and in Nottingham lace manufacturing moved from cottages into consolidated factories employing the latest technology. This transformation inflamed many of the weavers and other textile workers who felt their jobs threatened. The more aggressive fought back. They destroyed the machines but they couldn’t stop progress. Their rebellion gave us the term “Luddite” (after their supposed but probably fictional leader Ned Ludd), which still identifies “a person opposed to industrialization or automation.” Our era’s adoption of computerized technology in so many fields (transportation, communication, manufacture, etc.) has popularized the word anew. And it all started in Nottingham in an intermittent rebellion that lasted from 1811 to 1816. Protestors were finally stopped at gunpoint and military force.
We also knew that Robin Hood and his merry men used to hang out in Sherwood Forest not far from here. You’ll find his likeness around town, as in this statue in front of the Nottingham Castle Wall.
One thing we didn’t know is that the city is built over caves. Nottingham sits on a large sandstone ridge. Sandstone is relatively soft. Simple hand tools are sufficient to carve out a cave large enough to serve as a pub cellar, a shelter for a poor man or family, or even a tannery. Over 500 individual caves have been discovered–all man-made–dating back over a thousand years. During World War II at least 86 of them functioned as air raid shelters.
And now they draw income from tourists like us who have never seen anything quite like this labyrinth of cubby holes and connecting passages.
After spending time underground we found Nottingham’s Beach a welcome change. During summer the central marketplace/town square is transformed into a beach-like carnival, complete with rides, booths, music, and sand. Yes, beach sand, carted in for the season. There is water as well, but it’s here year-round in the fountain and pool that little children find irresistible.
Nottingham is a pub city. There’s nothing new about this, as the date (1189 AD) on Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem testifies. This unusual name comes from its claim to have provided refreshment for Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land to fight for King Richard the Lionhearted. (I should add that there is no documentation to back up this claim. Makes a good story, though.) The building sits up against the castle wall and incorporates some of the famous caves.
There’s a sadness about the success of the pubs and the decline of the churches. One of the most beautiful is the Piano and Pitcher. You can see the towering stain glass window which gives this pub its unique ambience. As we toured the building Joy told a waitress that it was a bit hard for a preacher to see this great church facility being used as a pub and not housing an active congregation. She was right.
Another repurposed building is this former music hall. In a reverse twist, a group of Christians have converted it into a pub that’s run by volunteers and serves the community through seasonal musicals and charitable activities. Notice the quality of the construction, including this unusual 19th-century rounded roof. “The Malt Cross,” as the facility is now known, has recently been granted permission to make use of caves beneath the building for musical performances, private dining, and maybe a brewery where once monks stored meat and beer.
Nottingham names among its famous sons some notable 19th century literary figures. The poet Lord Byron lived here for a few years. So did novelist Samuel Butler. J. M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan, was born in Scotland but spent some early years here. And of course there’s D. H. Lawrence, who scandalized polite society with Lady Chatterley’s Lover and other famous writings. He was born in Nottinghamshire and attended high school in the city. He’s of special interest to me because of a college student in one of my classes years ago who insisted she much preferred Lawrence to Jesus. I might have said a word or two in rebuttal.
We opened this post with a shot of our last Chester breakfast. We close with a return to the food theme and a confession. Yes, though we are in England and enjoy the native cuisine, in Nottingham’s Five Guys restaurant we nostalgically ate hamburgers. And peanuts. And fries. And drank a chocolate milkshake. And repented the next day.
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