April 16, 2010

England and Wales part 4: Wales

When I was 12, I took it upon myself to teach myself Welsh. Really. Needless to say, it didn't really stick. But although that obsession faded, I never lost the desire to visit Wales. So when we planned our trip to central England, I insisted we take a day or two to drive into Wales. It didn't look that far on a map - surely it wouldn't be that long of a journey.

Well, never underestimate how long it can take to get around on British roads. Nevertheless, we did get in a few days along the southern coast of Wales.

Our first stop, as it grew dark and dark rainclouds rolled in, was the not-entirely-scenic town of Swansea. Caught in the middle of what seemed like a true gale, we took the first room we could find and spent the night.

The town of Pembroke, from the castle

From there, we drove west. Our next stop was Pembroke, a cute medieval town with a stunning 12th century castle. We spent several hours running around the castle grounds, climbing stairs, walking along the ramparts, and enjoying amazing views from the towers. Like I said in the last post, there's something to be said for historical sites where the visitor can have the run of the place.

We had the castle virtually to ourselves

The British have a thing for creepy mannequin-based historic interpretive displays. Apparently, this is what it's like at a medieval feast.

From Pembroke, we headed south to the seaside town of Tenby. With an amazing, broad beach and a colorful old town, Tenby was a lovely place to visit.

March 9, 2010

England and Wales part 3: Stonehenge and Avebury

I'll keep this brief...no one needs another lecture about Stonehenge, so I'll stick to touristy photos. For more information on Stonehenge, check out English Heritage's webpage. or the University of Sheffield's excavation page. For more on Avebury, again English Heritage has a good run-through and photos. Both sites are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Stonehenge (duh). The site hasn't fared too well over the last few centuries. A busy road cuts nearly through the center of the site and separates the stone circle from other elements of the site and the surrounding plains. When you arrive at the site, you park, buy your ticket, then are funneled into a passageway that runs underneath the road. You pass through a cement corridor lined with large murals depicting the landscape of the prehistoric Salisbury Plain (lots of trees!), but little interpretive material is available. Then, emerging from the tunnel, you immediately see the stones themselves (and lots of sheep!). Turn around, and you'll see traffic and the visitors center.

Once at the site itself, you're essentially confined to a path ringing the stones. You can get pretty close, but no touching. From here you can appreciate the monument up close, if you're lucky enough to have a view unobstructed by picture-taking tourists.

The lack of access to the stones is not a bad idea though, considering how badly the site has been damaged by visitors over the years. The more people tread on the ground, touch the stones, or (god forbid) hack off pieces of the stones, the more irreversible damage is done to the site.

This is Avebury. It's another prehistoric site, and physically it's close to Stonehenge (about 20 miles), but as an archaeological experience it's worlds away.

The site is essentially unrestricted. You can walk along the massive (1.3 km circumference) circular earthen banks and ditches, you can touch the standing stones, and wander around the site with relatively few tourists to contend with. There's something to be said for an archaeological site like this- where a visitor is free to experience the site how he or she chooses.

There is always a conflict (at least in my mind) between the need to conserve archaeological sites and the need to make sites available to the public. While the feet and hands of the thousands of tourists who visit a site like this in a year inevitably do damage to the site's integrity, at the same time this must be balanced by the benefit of allowing the public to experience archaeological sites and the fundamental right of all people to know and experience the world's history.

November 16, 2009

England and Wales, part 2: Bath

After leaving London, we boldy rented a car and set off on a terrifying, death-defying, left-side-of-the-road driving adventure (note: I was too chicken to drive). First stop, Bath.

The Abbey in Bath

Bath was just gorgeous. The architecture was incredible, and everything was made from a lovely golden sandstone, which seemed to practically glow. We arrived in the middle of a nice afternoon shower, and got the whole place to ourselves for a few hours.

Then of course there's the history. Perhaps on account of its natural hot springs, Bath has been continuously inhabited since Neolithic times. In the 1st century A.D., the city, then known as "Aquae Sulis", was a well-populated Roman resort and religious center. And in Georgian times, the city rose out of relative obscurity to become a major resort town for the wealthy. Much of the city's most prominent architecture dates from this period.

The Bath. The lower levels (around the pool) are Roman, the upper levels date to the 19th century.
Note the two "Romans" having a casual conversation by the pool.

"I say, good fellow, which way to the frigidarium?"

The Pump Room at the baths. My inner Jane Austen nerd has died and gone to heaven at this point.

Image courtesy sallylunns.co.uk

After leaving the Baths, we ran across this interesting structure- supposedly "Bath's oldest house" (with some elements dating to the 15th century), and the mythological point of origin of the famous Sally Lunn Bun. How could I pass up the combination of historic structure, tea house, and creepy "kitchen museum"?

To be honest I had never heard of a Sally Lunn bun before, but apparently they're quite famous. The plaque says so.

According to the restaurant's website (improper use of quotation marks in the original),

"It is a rich round and generous brioche bun similar to the historic French festival ‘breads’. Sally Lunn, a Huguenot refugee (perhaps better known as Solange Luyon) came to Bath in 1680 via Bristol after escaping persecution in France. In Lilliput Alley she found work with the baker and introduced her now famous light and delicate ‘bun’ to pre Georgian Bath."

While in the tea house, I had a smoked salmon sandwich on a toasted Sally Lunn bun and a pot of tea. I felt very British.

In the basement of the building is the restaurant's "kitchen museum", a recreation of the original 17th century kitchen. 30p for admission, or free with purchase of buns! I think the creepy mannequin is supposed to be Sally Lunn.

October 27, 2009

England and Wales, part 1: London

Hello out there. Anyone listening? Amazing how four months can just fly by like that.

For the next few posts I'd like to share some snapshots from my "recent" trip to England and Wales. First up: London!

Kensington Gardens

For whatever reason, England was one of those places that I never had a strong urge to visit. Scotland - yes, Ireland - definitely!, Wales - why not? ...But England never had much appeal. But oh how wrong I was. England was truly delightful. From the minute I stepped off the plane, I felt as though I'd come home.

For one thing, the weather was fantastic. Although we'd been duly warned of the risks of traveling in the UK in April, we had nothing but blue skies and sunshine for the first half of our trip (although we were later duly punished by gale force winds and torrential rains).

Wild Boar Sausage at Borough Market

And again, despite dire warnings from friends, family, and total strangers about how bad the food would be, we found the opposite to be true. Almost everywhere we went, we ate very well indeed- particularly, though not exclusively, in London.

Touristy, yes, but I was like a kid in a candy store at the Borough Market. The location is spectacular and the atmosphere is really enjoyable if you can tolerate the crowds. The sheer variety and quality of the food for sale was amazing. We got ourselves some boar sausage and ate it next door outside the Southwark Cathedral, then went back for dessert and coffee from Monmouth Coffee Co.

Clearly there was no way to resist such adorable shortbread. Unfortunately they looked better than they tasted.

Of course there was plenty of sightseeing. We made the mistake of visiting the British Museum just as all of the major galleries were closing, but I still got in a rushed tour of the highlights.

A centaur gets the ole' knee-in-the-back from a headless Lapith, Parthenon Marbles, British Museum



We spent our last morning in London with pastries and coffee from Ottolenghi, walking in Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park.

June 28, 2009

Bizarre Historical Landmark of California: Watts Towers

The Watts Towers are one of LA's more unique attractions. Built by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia over a period of 30 years, the nine towers and associated structures are a great example of 20th century American folk art. Rodia immigrated to the US at the turn of the last century, working his way across the country and eventually settling in 1921 in Watts, California. The same year, he began building the Towers, working completely by hand, without scaffolding, and using whatever materials he could get his hands on. The project was finished in 1955, when he simply left one day, deeding the property to a neighbor. The City of Los Angeles declared the Towers unsafe and ordered them demolished. However, public outcry prevented the demolition, and the property is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark and Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument number 15. The property is also now a state historic park, and the towers have been undergoing renovation following the Northridge quake.

Imprints of tools, plus Rodia's initials ("S R") and date 1923.

As an archaeologist, two things fascinate me about the Watts Towers. First is Rodia's use of found objects in the construction of his work, a.k.a. a creative use of other people's trash. As with Nit Wit Ridge, most of the decorative elements are created out of found objects such as soda bottles, broken glass, pottery, silverware, and sea shells. These objects, discarded by others, were deliberately collected for their color and texture and arranged with great care. The framework for the Towers was made from scrap rebar. Some of the decorative material came from Malibu Potteries, where he was employed for a time, but much of it was collected during Rodia's wanderings along city streets and the nearby Pacific Electric Railway right of way. Thus, the Towers are not only an excellent example of the reuse and repurposing of artifacts and building material, they are also practically a museum of early to mid- 20th century material culture.

Green bottle bases used as decorative elements

Another interesting aspect of the Watts Towers is that despite the prominent role of American material culture in the decorative element, the design of the Towers in fact echoes aspects of traditional Italian culture. Whether by design or unconscious imitation, the Towers strongly resemble the tall, elaborately decorated ceremonial towers carried in the processions of the Giglio festival in Nola, Italy, near where Rodia spent his childhood.

Tower from a Giglio festival in New York, 1962

While the neighborhood in which the Towers are situated is, to say the least, sketchy, they are certainly worth a visit. Pictures do not do the site justice- only in person can you get a sense of the scale of this unique work, and truly appreciate the 30 years of work put into it by one man. The site is very easy to get to by LA standards, just off the 110 freeway, so no excuses.

Here is the National Register registration form [pdf] (and the source of data for this post): Arloa Paquin Goldstone, "The Towers of Simon Rodia", National Park Service. June 18, 1990.

Also, check out this interesting 1957 film showing the man himself at work:

June 10, 2009

Seen at a Minnesota street fair


Cheese curds! Not on a stick, but always delicious.

Not pictured: Mini Donuts

April 26, 2009

French Bread, Julia Child-style

I'm so proud of this bread. A beautiful, crusty, chewy baguette. I have no idea why I baked, photographed, and wrote a blog post about it over a year ago, but never hit "publish". So, in the interest of spring cleaning, here it is: Julia Child's french bread.

I will not get into the topic of what makes a "proper" french bread. This is a much disputed topic. However...proper or not, this bread is damn good. And you can't ask for a more reliable source for a good recipe than Julia Child.

This is the kind of recipe that you must read, reread, then commit a substantial amount of time to carrying it out (although as with most bread recipes, the bulk of that time is hands-off). But don't be too intimidated- it really is ultimately quite simple and very worthwhile.

At The Sour Dough you can find not only Julia's original recipe, but helpful comments and tips from experienced bakers interspersed throughout. There is a wealth of information there. Finally, I believe I've linked to this before, but do take a look at this video of Julia Child and Danielle Forestier making french bread. For a visual learner like myself, it helps to see the recipe, not just read it.

March 8, 2009

Field photos: Redlands

I've noticed a pattern in my travels in California. When traveling for pleasure, we invariably pick a nice little town along the coast, or take a drive up the coast, or camp on the coast... I rarely venture inland, except when work takes me there. But California's interior is just as spectacular as its coast, and is full of beautiful scenery, quirky little towns, and history.

I have fallen in love with Redlands, California. There's something about the town, which sprung up in the late 19th century around the citrus industry and quickly became a favorite winter retreat for wealthy folk from the east, that reminds me so much of a midwestern town. It may be the blocks after blocks of well-preserved Victorian and Crafstman homes (endangered species in Southern California), the cute main street, the small-town feel...whatever it is, I immediately felt at home.

In fact, so many of the original residents of Redlands came from the Midwest, that an early group of settlers called themselves the "Chicago Colony" and named Redlands' main street after State Street in Chicago.

Interestingly enough, Redlands was a planned community designed by two East Coast developers, Frank Brown and Edward Judson, in 1881. The planners bought the land, laid out the town in a grid plan, advertised to potential eastern investors, and encouraged the fledgling citrus industry by building canals to bring water from the mountains to the orchards.

The Santa Fe depot, once Redlands' main railroad station (no longer in use). The structure, a colonnade that shades the depot within, is built in a Classical Revival style.

Shutters on a window at the San Bernardino Asistencia, once a cattle-grazing outpost of the Mission San Gabriel from 1819-1834 (California Historical Landmark #42). The structures you see there now are actually reproductions built in the 1930s as a WPA project. Its Historical Landmark designation was actually in recognition of the fine craftsmanship of the WPA structures, not so much for the site's earlier history.

The A.K. Smiley Public library, near downtown. One of the prettiest libraries I've ever seen. Designed in a "moorish" (or mission) style, the library opened in 1898. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places and as a state Historical Landmark.

Lest you think Redlands is all class, let's take a drive out to the outskirts of town, shall we? Technically, this house is in neighboring Mentone. You can't tell from the picture, but the Statue of Liberty head has glowing green eyes.

Long-abandoned bunkers in the desert scrub...creepy.