Historical Perspective

My parents are both educators who have significant portions of their summers free, and when I was growing up we lived far away from our relatives. As a result, my family spent a lot of time on cross-country road trips. We didn’t generally stop at tourist traps or amusement parks along the way, but we would frequently visit historical sites. I’m afraid that I didn’t learn as much from those experiences as I might have, and complained much more than I should have. However, those memories help me want to be sensitive to the needs Elena and Roman have now when I, as a grown-up with a wider perspective, have found myself more interested in things historical. I suspect that something similar is true for Jenny, even though we are not always successful in balancing our interests with what’s best for the children.

Since we hadn’t been able to find an inexpensive photographer or portrait studio to take pictures of Roman for his first birthday, Jenny decided it wouldn’t be too terrible for me to be the photographer for the photo shoot. I foolishly decided that we should take the pictures at Fountains Abbey, a World Heritage Site, even though Jenny sensibly suggested that it would definitely be easier to take them in the park right next to our house. However, she eventually agreed to my plan. Not surprisingly, we were already stressed out by the time we got to the ruins of the abbey, but it was a beautiful day and the place is just incredible. It’s amazing to see this place that must have been magnificent when it was fully functioning, and realize that it was occupied for hundreds of years, that it was an old, thriving institution when Columbus first reached the shores of the New World, and that it’s been abandoned for almost half a millenium, longer than it was ever occupied, and yet the masonry still stands and tells the story of the place and the people.

Today we might think of that as needless overengineering, but it stands in stark contrast to the ephemeral task that we were there to do, capturing a single moment in time by taking digital photographs, which transform photons into electrons that are stored by making invisible changes to spinning platers of magnetic material or chips full of tiny circuits. Data might be irretrievably lost in five or ten years from now if we don’t take careful care, but Fountains Abbey will probably look much the same in another century. All in all, despite the stress, the pictures turned out very nicely. If Jenny allows me to take pictures for the next milestone, I will let her decide the location.

Another fun thing about Fountains Abbey is that the Studley Royal Water Garden is located on the same site, although it’s much newer, dating back only to the 1700s. After we wrapped up the photo shoot, we took a stroll around the rest of the grounds and had some ice cream at the far end. There were pheasants all over the place, which Roman and I especially enjoyed looking at.

On a different Saturday we visited York, where the first thing we went to see was the Minster, a church where construction was started in the thirteenth century and took more than two hundred years to be completed. Various sections have been restored and renovated, sometimes several times, but it is an amazing and still mostly ancient structure. The stained glass is especially impressive, as are the miniature grotesques in the chapter house. Elena and Roman were not especially interested in the Minster, but we tried to liven things up for them by looking for horses and dragons amidst the tapestries and artwork.

Our second stop in York was the National Railway Museum. Like any toddler, Elena is fascinated by trains, and we were with some friends whose son is about the same age as she is. The trains that they liked the best were the coin-operated Thomas the Tank Engine rides that were strategically placed in several locations throughout the museum. Roman found a nice set of stairs that led to an elevated view of the display area and scampered up it as quickly as he could. For Jenny and I the star of the show was the Wizard Express–a train that was used as the train to Hogwarts in the filming of the Harry Potter movies. It was also pretty cool to walk under one of the trains and look up at its guts from below.

We did some other sightseeing around town. St. Mary’s Abbey wasn’t visible, because it had recently been used as the backdrop for the Mystery Plays, and the audience seating was still up all around it. At a chocolate shop in the heart of the old town we learned about the rich heritage of the chocolate trade in York and Elena made and decorated a giant chocolate lollipop. We walked a section of the ancient city wall, which for me may have been the most thought provoking part of the whole trip. How strange and dangerous a world it must have been where it made sense to build an enormous wall around an entire city! I have never been an avid student of history, but visits to places like York and Fountains Abbey make me want to become one.


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