Friday, June 29, 2012

Learning from my patients

It takes a little more time to do so, but whenever possible I try to ask my patients about their life and work.  You learn such astonishing things.  A recent week was extra good.

The runner up story:

Me: "What do you do for a living?"

Patient: "I am a bear keeper."

Me: "Huh, and how do you learn to do that?"

Patient:  "I took a bear keeping course."

Totally true as it happens.  I looked it up.   Bears!

There are a surprising number of bears that need caring for, cubs who have lost their mothers and so forth.  I found the instructions for the course to be quite charming.  Who knew that bears dislike cigars?  And the part about being physically agile just plain makes sense.

Grand prize winner of the week was a 93 year old woman.  Sharp as a tack, she says she is a lock to make 100.  She was telling me about her childhood.  Evidently her father was a research chemist, working with some of the big names of the day.  As she tells it:

"My mother disliked Henry Ford, he was quite a bigot."

But, she once got a piggy back ride from Thomas Edison!

Two weeks later her mother said: "Close your eyes."

She was led to a window and allowed to open her eyes.

And saw that Thomas Edison had bought her a pony!!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Boots at Journey's End

Although the scientists working on the Human Genome Project have yet to make an official announcement, I think it is quite evident that the gene coding for "liking shoes" is to be found on the X chromosome.  Certainly, on average, men care about shoes at a level roughly half that of women.  And there are outliers.  I for instance have managed a degree of affection for exactly one pair of footwear in my imposing span of years.

It was a pair of LaCrosse hiking boots, sold under their "Quad" brand.  I got them on sale at the local outlet store.

Partly it was a matter of them coming to me at the proper time.  I had been working far too long in a practice setting rife with difficult personalities and politics.  In fact, as a precursor to my making a permanent break with the place, I had just announced that I would be taking the month of June off to go have some fun.

This was 8 years ago.  I worked on my tan.  I grew a beard for the first time since a rather unsuccessful college era goatee.  And I pulled on my new boots and went to Alaska.

It was a fun trip, fishing with my oldest son.  And it was the first of many trips.

I found my traveling boots to be equally comfortable on cobblestones and pasture land.  They have carried me to Alaska three times, and have slogged through digging at Vindolanda five times.  I have walked about 40% of the way across England in them.  They were my daily footwear when I worked as a Carny in the Deep South.

In fact, they were so comfortable that I wore them almost every day, setting them aside only for social occasions when the spousal eyebrow was raised above its usual warning level.

Eight years is a long time for boots, the miles do add up.  I have rubbed them with various polishes and oils, and sprayed them lavishly with silicone water repellent.  But eventually they just got too worn out. 

I took them over the pond for one last dig at Vindolanda.  The leather was dull and deeply cracked.  The uppers were starting to separate from the soles, and patching with a product called "Shoe Goo" was unsightly.

But I figured that I owed my old friends this one last trip.

And there they will stay.  Oh, I suppose they ended up in a landfill somewhere in the UK, but I prefer to just imagine that they are on a permanent voyage.

Here is a picture of them on our last night at the Twice Brewed Inn, Northumbria...

I had of course already taken the precaution of ordering another pair of the exact same boot, and have them well on the way to being broken in.  If my estimate of the respective durability of the boots and my body are accurate, this pair should walk me all the way to retirement!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Fathers Day with Jerry Jeff Walker

I suppose the two grey haired fellows sharing an odoriferous joint might have been doing so as an adjunct to chemotherapy.

But the Grannie in the tie-dyed t shirt, gyrating and shimmying away down front required a less plausible explanation:  I guess you really can go back, at least for a little while.

Fatherhood has landed me in some very unusual places, and in the Year of Our Lord 2012 I found myself in the company of my youngest son at a Jerry Jeff Walker concert.

I have mentioned Jerry Jeff once before.  His was the music of my young restless days, starting at just the age my son is now.  I was tossed unprepared into my freshman year of college.  It was a time of high pressure weeks and party weekends.  Girl friends came and went.  Future plans were misty and out of focus.  And you could go to a place called Rho House, pay a nominal fee for a plastic glass and drink more beer than you should while listening to Jerry Jeff sing “Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mothers” as a wavering conga line snaked its way out the door going who knows where.

A year or two into Med School, and having met my future wife, my interests shifted, but I still kept track of Mr. Walker’s career.  He had married a good woman, cleaned up his lifestyle a bit, played a couple of Presidential inauguration gigs, but mostly just kept on making the kind of music he liked whether or not it was commercially successful.

My son became a second generation fan when I suggested he give a listen, and now has all the good old albums on good old classic vinyl.

But back to Father’s Day.  Jerry Jeff is pretty much retired; he plays a big Reunion show in Texas once a year and a smattering of mostly benefit gigs.  I have to admit, I was not sure what to expect.  The crowd was an enthusiastic full house, but mostly my age and up.  You would see the guys swigging a beer or two while waiting for the show, and not long after see them-in the fashion of old guys and fluids-trekking off to the bathrooms.

Jerry Jeff came on stage to loud applause.  He has put on a few pounds, and walks a bit stiffly.  I read somewhere that he has had some major back surgery.

At first it seemed like it was not going to be much of a show.  His voice was weak, his vocals overpowered by an energetic lead guitar.  He was fiddling with his amp and before each song he would look over his shoulder at the side men and say something.

Eventually he mentioned that his allergies were really “kicking my ass”, and that they were having to switch things around on the fly.  In fact, he said, “I don’t believe that song has ever been done in that key before!”.

He did most of the old standards, and some fun new stuff.  And a very strange thing happened.  His voice got stronger and stronger as the show went on.  He seemed like that rarest of baseball players, the pitcher who is throwing a lot harder in the ninth inning than he was in the first.

To the delight of all he even got up a bit towards the end and was dancing on the edge of the stage while playing a spirited guitar solo.  The fans dancing around down front-and I saw at least one three generation family there-loved it.

Jerry Jeff was what I hoped he would be.  Sure, he is greyer, heavier, slower than he was when I first saw him back in the mid 1970s.  As am I.  But he seems totally comfortable with it, and given his hard living lifestyle early on he is probably pleasantly amused/surprised to be doing as well as he is.

We first generation fans should take that lesson to heart.

The world is a quirky place.  So I never say never.  But it is unlikely that I will see Jerry Jeff again.  Eventually he will kick back to the well earned comforts of his ranch, enjoy life on his own terms, and essentially become one of his songs:

“One day I looked up, he’s pushin’ eighty,
 Got brown tobacco stains all down his chin.
 To me he’s one of the heroes of this country,
 So why’s he all dressed up like them old men?”

Friday, June 22, 2012

Indian Cemetery

One community I work in on occasion is way up in the "North Woods".  Recently, while looking at a map for something else, I noticed that there was an entry for "Indian Cemetery" in an out of the way corner of the city.  I suppose I should not have been surprised, the area historically has had and continues to have a strong Ojibwa community.  I had just never heard any mention of the cemetery, nor seen any signs for it.

It was not easy to find.  Even with GoogleEarth I missed it on my first attempt.  Finally I spotted what amounts to an unmarked dirt driveway running back behind a vacant business:
It somehow did not seem like the kind of place you should just go driving around in, so I parked my car and walked back there in brilliant morning sunlight.  As the clearing opens up you see this:

I got an instant sensation of, well, "alieness" for lack of a better word.  We are accustomed to seeing a cemetery where the dead are marked out in regimented rows, presumably buried six feet down and with the weight of some serious headstones physically and metaphysically anchoring them in place.  But here we get this:

It seems as if the usual rules, or more accurately our perceived rules, have been suspended.  No time resisting granite, we get moss encrusted wooden shingles.  It somehow lacks the sense of permanent memories that characterize most cemeteries.
I am pretty sure that the deceased are actually buried to regulation depth, but seeing their grave markers visibly crumbling and seemingly being pulled down into the earth is disquieting.  I guess it might fit in well with Native American thoughts about being an integral part of nature, and it certainly reflects biological reality.

Keep looking and you start to see small details.
Many of the graves are either unmarked or have small plaques that you have to hunt for.  So I can't say for sure how old some of the earlier burials might be.  I am guessing early 1970s, corresponding to a time when there was a revival of interest in Native culture.  As to the newest uses, the above picture shows new, rough unpainted wood, freshly turned earth and flowers wilted but still holding together.

This is very sad.  The smaller graves denote infant burials.  This one has such a home made look to it.  It poignantly reminds me of bird houses I made with my sons when they were little.  There are too many of these, as the Native community has infant mortality rates some 20% higher than national averages, and SIDS rates twice as high.

Here and there you see things that remind you that the Native Americans have a foot in each culture:
A traditional grave.  An interesting bit of mosaic artwork.  And an American flag denoting military service.  A rather high proportion of Natives do serve in the armed forces, and are very highly thought of there.
I should not make assumptions, but I have heard of little bowls like this being used for small offerings.  Tobacco and so forth.  In my professional work I have to really discourage tobacco use.  Native Americans live on average 7 years less than whites, with diabetes, heart disease and substance abuse being major contributors.  Smoking causes much suffering, yet tobacco is a legitimate part of their culture.
A single feather lying in the grass.  Just random or was it part of a memorial?

I don't know what to make of this last photo.  The graves had the usual assortment of flowers and flags, with the newer ones seemingly better remembered than the old.  Off to one side I saw this:
A rather large collection of grave decorations unceremoniously tossed into the underbrush. They seem similar to decorations left standing.  This was not long after Memorial Day, but does not seem to have the patriotic look of military decorations.  Was there some other holiday, unknown to me, that had all the graves decked out recently?  So many mysteries, and not a living soul about to ask.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Life as a Sausage

Geezer that I am at two score and fifteen, I still do not count it a good day unless I learn something new.  Recently I had occasion to compare notes with a co-worker on the perennial favorite topic of what our children are up to.

She told me that her daughter was a sausage.

Oh, not just any sausage.  Her daughter is one of the famous "racing sausages" for the Milwaukee Brewers baseball team.

Here's the deal.  As a promotional stunt a local sausage company, Klements, kitted out some folks in foam rubber sausage suits and had a race around the ball field after the sixth inning.  It caught on because, well, I don't really know why this would seem like entertainment, but it may have something to do with it being a ball park in Milwaukee and everyone having had a lot to drink by that point in the game.

1 is Bratwurst  2 is Polish  3 is Italian.  These were the originals.  4 is Hotdog and 5 is Chorizo, added later to acknowledge Hispanic contributions to baseball.  Or cuisine, its not easy to tell.

I kept asking my friend more and more questions about her daughter's job, as I consider this very important stuff.

Evidently they interview about 200 applicants a year for roughly 10 positions.  An outgoing personality is said to be a major determinant in hiring, although just how you can project any kind of personality when wearing a foam rubber suit that covers all of you but your knees on down is a mystery to me.

The job pays minimum wage, and you join a crew of roughly 100 sausages.  They work on a rotating schedule.  Some hardened veterans have been sweating under the foam for a decade.

Of course the main duty is the Sausage Race.  I had assumed that this was in some fashion "fixed".  We live in a society where kids get participation ribbons for successful breathing.  Surely there would be some balance, some way to ensure that victories were spread out evenly?  I mean, would you let Chorizo lose on Cinco de Mayo?  But my cynicism is ill founded.  This is a fair, even up competitive race.  Indeed, they publish statistics on this, and the relative lack of success of Senor Chorizo-he of the aerodynamically problematic sombrero-suggests an honest competition.

But the Sausages have other responsibilities as well.  The official Brewers mascot is a certain Bernie the Brewer.  When the team hits a home run Bernie goes down a slide into a simulated giant beer stein.  The sausages stand by on either side of the slide to make sure he does not fall off.  This seemingly trivial factoid acquires significance only when you remember how darned hot the suits are,  and that a home run for the Brewers can happen in any inning.  Those kids-mostly college age and apparently more women than men-are doing some serious sweating for that minimum wage job.

You can also hire one or more of the Sausages for private functions. 

"Really?" I said. "And can you make them run for you?"

"Nope.  No running allowed.  No talking either, they come with a spokesperson."

There is another tradition at Miller Park.  Fans are sometimes picked to wear the suits and run the race.  But there are always official Sausages suited up and ready to step in on a moments notice should the fans turn up too drunk to run in a straight line. 

Apparently the suits are unwieldy and it takes practice to master running in them. 

And of course, there was the infamous Randall Simon incident of 2003.

A city outraged

The dastardly Mr. Simon was arrested, fined and suspended by the Commissioner of Baseball for three games.  He tried to make amends, on his next trip to Milwaukee he bought sausages for a whole section of the stadium, and he on request autographed the bat and gave it to the young lady he had knocked down.  Oh, and somehow she got a nice vacation to the Caribbean out of this.

But when visiting Milwaukee I think Mr. Simon had still better watch his back.

And here as a special bonus, some young people of my acquaintance re-enacting the Sausage Racers for a Halloween party.  Their outfits, while otherwise accurate, appear better suited to enjoying festive food and drink.

ADDENDUM: I have learned a couple more key facts regards the sausages.  They do not have to stay in costume the whole game.  In fact, in their job of spotting for Bernie the Brewer on his home run slide they would be considerably less effective in character.  I mean, they can't see all that well and it looks to be difficult to extend your arms.   Also, regards Senor Chorizo, it has been noted that his won-lost record is quite variable.  In his early years he did rather poorly indeed, probably because of the ungainly and aerodynamically difficult hat.  But for a time he was winning with abandon.  I asked my sausage contact about this and she admitted that for a while there they were putting "track stars" into that suit to even up the odds.  But they did their job too well, and Chorizo was leading the "Sausage League" for a while....

Monday, June 18, 2012

A flip of a fin. A life changes direction.

When I was growing up the highlight of my summers were trips to Northern Minnesota.  Sometimes it would be the whole family, sometimes just myself going up to stay with my grand parents.  There was a fair amount of just idle hanging around I suppose, but there was also some serious fishing.

My grand father loved to fish and passed that down to me.  My dad, well, he being a family doctor and all did not take much time off.  Or relax much when he did.

Fast forward a generation and it is myself in the role of dad and family physician, now with young children of my own.

It was a long drive from where we lived in Wisconsin, but for years we went back to the same area of Minnesota that I fished as a young man.  Our family still had a very modest cabin up there.  It is where my eldest son took his first step.  And a few weeks before kindergarten it was where he caught his first fish.

There was a ramshackle boat house on the property.  It was a real eyesore, the kind of structure you absolutely can't build anymore but it could continue to exist until it tumbled down.  On arrival after a long drive-punctuated by parental snapping at back seat misbehaviour-I went down to the boat house.

And I saw a nice sized sunfish in shallow water under one of the floor boards of the structure.  It did not seem bothered by my intrusion, it just sat there fanning its fins, almost daring any intruders to come along.

In retrospect I suppose it might have been protecting a nest, or maybe it just an ornery bit of bad tempered fish.

I made my son put on a life jacket, put a worm on the hook of some ridiculous kiddie fishing pole, and sent him down to see if anything was biting.

In very short order indeed he ran back up the hill, ecstatic, having caught a fish without any help at all!
I wonder sometimes at the extent to which little things direct our futures.  Had he slipped and fallen into the lake, or managed to hook himself in the ear, his life would have taken a different turn.  But that is not what happened.

No, he kept on fishing.  He loved to fish and got better and better at it.  He certainly surpassed my skills rather early on.  Every day in weather temperate or gloomy you would see him hop on his bike and pedal off to the local creek, a modern day Norman Rockwell lad.

He started to keep journals, detailing what he caught and when, analyzing trends.  Eventually he became a truly formidable fisherman, able to catch some kind of aquatic critter in anything from a six inch deep rivulet on up to the Gulf of Alaska.
Same grin.  Much uglier fish.

And so it goes.  A talented and socially adept young man, I suspect he could have gone into any number of fields and met success.  But he went to undergraduate and then to grad school in Fisheries Management.  This was at the time a field where jobs were almost non existent.

But there is always room for the best, and this spring he was hired on as a Fisheries Biologist, the youngest one currently working in our state.

It is something to ponder, isn't it.  A bobber goes down, a five year old happens to notice, and a career is launched.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Durham......something really odd

Seen walking about the historic center of Durham, UK:

Sometimes I just get a vague sense of familiarity when I see things, so I grab a quick shot for later study.  I seemed to remember something about Fish Spas.....

Ah, yes.  It is a deal where you pay actual money to put your tootsies in a shallow pool, at which point small fish nibble off all the dead skin!  Now the logo, a fish and two somewhat wonky looking feet makes sense.  As does the groaner of a motto:  Bon Appe Feet.

I guess this is a fairly new thing, just starting out as a commercial venture in Japan in 2006.  The practice has spread world wide, with the first such "Fish Spas" opening in the US in 2008 and in the UK two years later.

In the brief wikipedia entry on this topic it is noted that:  "Before being outlawed in most U.S. states, the novelty of fish pedicures was viewed as a possible revenue enhancer for struggling nail salons, which had experienced less "luxury spending" from their regular clients during the recession."

A degree of economic struggle is hinted at here too, note the location opposite "Poundland" which is the UK equivalent of a dollar store.

While still legal in the UK the Health Protection Agency recently issued an advisory to the effect that it viewed this as a potential risk for the spread of HIV and hepatitis.  Apparently there is some possibility of people bleeding when being repeatedly bitten by many small fish, and it is always such a pain to change aquarium water after each client!

The sign looks more than a little droopy.  Its probably just the torrential rains that the UK had been having, although I would not rule out a bit of sagging of interest in the concept as a whole.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Durham-other interesting stuff

Durham is one of those cities where you just keep tripping over odd things.   Next to my B & B was a little church.  I noticed that all the tombstones had been stacked up against the wall, I suppose to make mowing the lawn easier.
You have to look hard to find a small plaque that tells you that St. Margaret of Antioch church was built circa 1150.  You realize just how much history you have piled up in the UK when you see a structure built 350 years ante Columbus just sitting rather casually maintained on a side street.

Here is a newer structure in the University district.

It recognizes Sir Ove Arup, a modern architect who apparently was a real whiz with concrete.  One supposes he approved this memorial, but it looks to me a bit like the old "head on a pike" thing that befell those out of favor in times past.

Here is a modern depiction of an ancient story.  Outside a cinema complex we see the monks trudging about on their long journey with the coffin of St. Cuthbert.  This is not quite in synch with the whole Dun Cow story and the wagon that would not move, perhaps it depicts the earlier wanderings.
Other than the cathedral, the most historic building in Durham is the Castle.  Indeed, collectively they make up a World Heritage site.  But this is no conventional castle.  Once the home of the Bishops of Durham it was donated to create a site for Durham University.  Behold, the oldest and undoubtedly coolest college dorm on planet Earth!

It is open for tours only on the weekends, and not during final exams.  Our tour was lead by a very nice young lady in the "Hogwarts style" robes they wear for official occasions.  She was a self proclaimed "old stones geek" who delighted in telling us tales of the frequent discovery of ancient doorways and rooms walled up for centuries.  Alas, no interior photos allowed.  I mean, it is a college dorm.

But how cool would it be to live in a dorm with its own pub, dungeon and armory!  Actually the main dining hall was fairly well equipped...there were suits of English civil war armor lining the walls and two long racks of Napoleonic era muskets.  We were told that twice a week there is formal dinner with students and Masters in the Great Hall, and that elaborate drinking games were common.  I wonder how often someone has reached for a musket!

A photo from the Durham University website:

These are the Black Stairs.  They date to the 1600s, just after the Bishops got the place back from Cromwell.  Garrison troops always make a mess of things, and as part of the renovations the Bishop commissioned an elaborate free standing four story spiral staircase.  It started slumping right away, and the central pillars had to be added.  But the crazy tilt remains, challenging tipsy undergrads and visiting tourists to this very day.  It is also said to be haunted by The Grey Lady.  Cleaning ladies have refused to work on the Stairs.

Outside photos were allowed.  I rather liked these crests of arms from a couple of the Bishops of Durham:

Apparently these guys had a sense of humor.  Also a thing for birds.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Oddities of Durham Cathedral

In one sense cathedrals are the bane of American travelers to the Old World.  They are big, impressive, historic buildings.  You are expected to visit them.  But they so often are underwhelming.

Yes, I said underwhelming.  This despite being massive things, wonders of medieval construction, contemplative places to ponder the nature of God.

Most of them seem to be a hodge podge of different eras, with arches and apses that fascinate architecture geeks only.  And although there are usually active congregations they do not seem like going concerns regards being houses of worship.  A few hundred seats in a building the size of a zeppelin hanger.

But there are some that I find interesting nonetheless, and on a side trip to Durham I visited the cathedral there.  Most of my pictures are external shots as they do not allow photography.  If you want their official web page it is here.  If you prefer the wikipedia version, here it is.  So a few meandering pictures and thoughts:

This is the "Sanctuary Knocker".  Apparently in the middle ages those fleeing the authorities could turn up at the door of the church, bang on the door with this thing-also called a hagoday-and be admitted.  They were safe inside for 37 days, at the end of which time they had to decide whether they would face trial or leave the country by the nearest port.

A couple of thoughts.  First, this is a replica.  The original was in an exhibit at the cathedral which was closed for renovations.  Second, although the brass ring is worn smooth from those grasping at it you will note that there is a metal peg keeping anyone from trying this intriguing legal strategy in the modern era.  And finally, the accompanying plaque made no mention of how the fugitive from justice was supposed to safely get from the cathedral to the port! I wonder if the Ecclesiatical Authorities exercized a little discretion in deciding how much help they would provide in this respect.  Actually those spoil sports in Parliament eliminated the right of sanctuary in 1623, so bolting the thing down is mostly just to keep yobs from making noise.

Some time back I was pondering a "possible" reused Roman building stone and concluded it was a medieval sun dial.  Here is a near perfect match in situ at Durham cathedral.  Case closed.

As I have mentioned before in a post on Durham, the legend of its founding involves a milk maid seeking a lost "Dun Cow" which involved her leading a band of monks to the spot.  At which point they decided it was just the spot where St.Cuthbert, whose bones they were carrying, wanted them to build a cathedral.

Dun Cow Lane still exists and is said to trace the path of the lost cow.  Here it is in its entire modern length!
Note the edge of the cathedral on the left.  Clearly old bossy was in the home stretch here.  There are only a few doors opening onto Dun Cow Lane. 

Here is more information on Dun Cow Cottage which seems to get its name and address from the road running in back of it.

This is another doorway opening onto Dun Cow Lane.  I can't help it, I am just a serious fan-boy of enigmatic, bricked over doorways!

As I mentioned, Durham cathedral does not allow photographs inside the church proper.  So the image below is from their website.

Its the tomb of The Venerable Bede, an early churchman who wrote an infuriatingly incomplete history of Dark Ages England.  Oh, I had my hat off as I always do in a place of worship, and I wished the old boy Requiesit in Pace.  But my goodness Bedester, the things you knew and did not bother to write down!

Friday, June 8, 2012

From Beltingham to.....Narnia?

My visit to Beltingham was part of a walking loop that I undertook with one of my digging buddies, Scott from LA.  The local hiking club that put it together may have stretched the truth just a bit.  It seemed longer than the 8 miles advertised.  And that summer cottage made entirely of sheep bones?  We looked long and hard for it, and we were every bit as disappointed as you would have been to miss such a marvel.

Eventually we ditched the itinerary and went off on our own, following dead reckoning and the occasional peek at Scott's Tricorder that gave us ambiguous Google Earth readings.

It is when off the beaten path that you find the real enigmas.

Midgeholm does not appear on any map of the area.  Looking off in the direction indicated we could see a good distance.  Nothing.  Perhaps it is the rallying point for the pesky insects that make mid summer digging at Vindolanda such an ordeal.

Soon we were on a very rural lane.  We walked on it for a mile and the only vehicle that went by us was a tractor pulling hay. Which makes this roadside feature hard to explain.

It is a bus bench.  The back is missing, the iron supports are rusted.  There are several good sized trees growing up from underneath.

Why is it there?  It has certainly been out of service for decades, but as I looked about the surrounding landscape I could not see any justification for a bus stop.  No farm houses.  No derelict quarries or lime kilns.  There is nothing, and within the memory of Man Now Living there has been nothing there.

It gave me a strange feeling, and the first thing I thought of was a line from the C.S. Lewis book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

"In about ten minutes she reached it and found that it was a lamp-post.  As she stood looking at it, wondering why there was a lamp-post in the middle of a wood and wondering what to do next, she heard a pitter patter of feet coming towards her."

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Beltingham Part Two

My visit to Beltingham was brief, and there were things I should have spent more time hunting down.  I had read somewhere that the church contains the first memorial in the UK to a victim of an automobile accident!

And only later did I read that the church also has a perfect "leper's squint", a diagonal niche carved in the stone during the Middle Ages to allow those not allowed into the church to wittness the Elevation of the Host.  Darn, I simply must research things more intently prior to my travels!

But I did find a couple of  unexpected curiosities.  There was a tombstone from the 1870s in memory of Mary, wife of Septimus Wraune.  A most unusual name, did it relate to local antiquarian studies? 

And check out this tombstone from near the Saxon Cross:
Fairly standard stuff, if a bit better preserved than most of the stones in this location.  The odd thing was on the back side:

This is quite weathered and I have had to play with the contrast settings to bring it out.  It reads:

Our life hangs on a single thread
Which soon is cut then we are dead.
Then boast not reader of thy might.
Alive at noon and dead at night.

Affliction sore long (illegible) I bore,
Physicians were in vain.
Till God did please to give me ease
And take me from my pain.

Well.  Rather gloomy stuff from someone who died at the tender age of 20.  But to me it sounds a bit like a sort of standard inscription.  Something along the lines of: "As you are I once was, as I am you shall be." and similar sentiments you find on tombstones from Colonial times in New England.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Beltingham Church Yard

When digging at Vindolanda we get the weekends off to rest up.  Oh, and there is the occasional rain out as well.  So it is good to have a few local side trips on tap for the days when the shovels are idle.  And perhaps rusting.

This year I went over to Beltingham, a quaint village about 3 miles from Vindolanda, and had a look about the place.  It is surprising just how much history is jammed into one little church yard.

The church is from the mid 1500s, although some elements of it are felt to go back to the 1200s.  It is said to be the finest example in the UK of a "Perpendicular style" church of this era.
But it is the church yard that I found fascinating.  Lets start with the yews.

There are three huge, gnarled yew trees in the yard, the oldest of which likely predates the church and is perhaps a thousand years old.  In a rather lengthy discussion of this tree it is speculated that, yews being sacred to druidic sorts, it indicates a far longer history of worship on this site.

The eldest yew looks, for all practical purposes, to be an Ent from Tolkein!

The longevity of yews appears to be due to their continuous cycle of dying off and regenerating.  So you see old and new segments of the tree....held together with some gnarly chains and bands.

The tree is such a tangled mess of primeval foliage that it is hard to even get a picture that captures it right.

Welcome to Fangorn Forest.

But if you keep looking you find something that makes a thousand year old yew tree look like a tender young sapling.  Over on the other side of the church...

This is the remaining stub of a weathered Saxon cross, circa 680 AD.  If-and there is some debate on this point-it was not brought in from elsewhere, it would indicate a place of worship going back almost to Roman times.

And speaking of Roman, the plinth, or stone base for this cross was found to be made up of two Roman altars!

They are now in a museum at Newcastle, but the inscriptions read:


Which translates to:

"[...] the Fourth Cohort of Gauls, Severus Alexander's own,¹ devoted to his divinity, restored this gateway together with its towers from ground-level, under Claudius Xenophon,² pro-praetorian legate of our emperor in Britannia Inferior, under the direction of [...]"

This reference to the Fourth Cohort of Gauls is pretty clear evidence that the altar was hauled over from Vindolanda, but of course gives no clue as to when.

The second altar reads:

V• S • L • M
This translates to:

"To the goddess Satiada,¹
the Council of the Textoverdi²
willingly and deservedly fulfilled their vow."

This goddess is pretty much unknown beyond this inscription, and there is no certainty as to who the Textoverdi were.  Perhaps a minor tribe, it has even been suggested that Vindolanda was their civitas capital.

There is a story about these altars. 

The earliest excavator of the Vindolanda site-albeit in the casual fashion of 19th century antiquaries-was a Reverand Hedley.  Apparently while supervising excavations in 1835, Hedley "caught a death-chill while overlooking one day the excavation of a fine vessel". Evidently rainy days on the site are not a new phemomenom.  He was buried at Beltingham church yard, and as a gesture in recognition of Hedley's interests the local vicar moved the Roman altars, setting one on either side of Hedley's tomb.  In this fashion Hedley's grave was said to have been "consecrated by a cross at its foot and an interesting relic of roman piety on either side of it."

All the grave stones in Beltingham church yard are badly weathered, but if we assume the "ancient cross" in question was the Saxon example, I suspect this is Hedley's tomb:
It certainly looks to have been done in the style of a Roman tomb.  The picture of the Saxon cross shows it in the background, so the orientation looks about right.  One account I read indicated that the tomb was protected by an iron railing, but much can change in 150 years, and I saw no such enclosure anywhere in the church yard.  You may observe that there are no longer Roman altars on either side.  A new vicar came along, replacing the prior one who was a friend of Hedley.  The altars were donated to the Society of Antiquaries in Newcastle in 1858.

If you are planning a walking visit, here's how to get there.  Start at the pub in Bardon Mills.  After an appropriate stay, walk east out of town past the War Memorial.  Soon after that you will cross the South Tyne on the foot bridge.  Then take the road east about a mile until it climbs a gentle hill to Beltingham.  It is difficult to get lost in this micro village, the church is right on the tiny village green.

Beltingham is a small village, but keep an eye out for the nice Georgian house that seems to be rented out for group stays, and for the much remodeled "bastle house" that recalls earlier, less peaceful times.

A bit more on Beltingham coming up on Wednesday and Friday.  Lepers, sarcastic last words and a possible inter-dimensional portal?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Happy Diamond Jubilee, Ma'am

Even here in the States we have some awareness that Queen Elizabeth is celebrating her Diamond Jubilee this weekend.  Sixty years on the throne, my goodness.

My favorite bit of Jubilee stuff is this ad for Marmite, a yeasty sort of stuff you put-or don't put-on your bread in the morning. 

First, the conventional Marmite:
And the ad for the special Diamond Jubilee version:

I really like this ad.  Much more than I like Marmite.  Like all great British ads it hits multiple notes.  The name is changed to reflect the custom of referring to the Queen as Ma'am.  We have replaced the pot and spoon with a crown. We have the Royal Corgis.  And two toast puns...the motto "Toasting the Queen's Diamond Jubilee" and check out the Royal Crest made of five pieces of toast in a toast rack!  (the ghostly street light is a reflection, sorry).

This is not the first time the folks at Marmite have had a little fun with their logo.  Previously they put out a valentines day version made with champagne yeast!

I could go on.  Indeed, the great New Zealand Marmite Shortage deserves some recognition.  But I do not want to distract from Her Majesty on her special day. 

Happy Diamond Jubilee, Ma'am!

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Steampunk Elizabeth?

As England gears up for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth, lets not forget that even a Golden Jubilee is a pretty big deal.  While wandering around Carlisle on a rain soaked day I came across a strange commerative of that 50th anniversary.

It is a sort of industrial-art installation.  Check it out:
It was in an underpass under a busy road near Carlisle castle, so my photo quality is not the best.  Also it was rather spooky and dimly lit.  The things show cased did not seem all that regal, they appeared to be bits of old machinery with a sort of 19th century vibe to them.  Some had plaques explaining local roots, other things just.....were.

A substantial orange gear.
A plow?  And some kind of cables?

A big honkin' eggbeater.

Assorted green, orange and blue objects.

It's hard to know what to make of all this stuff.  It reminds me a little of a "Steampunk" comic, where impractical mechanisms along the lines of giant dirigibles and steam powered robots are, in defiance of conventional rules of physics, practical.

My favorite example of this genre is Girl Genius, a long running web based comic that claims to be about "Adventure, Romance and Mad Science".

I warn you, it can be addicting, but to appreciate GG you need to scroll back to the beginning episode.  And be prepared to waste some time there.