Last Castle


It was only at the very last one we would have a chance to visit that we learned the real truth about castles: they weren’t ever homes for princesses; they were places where prisoners (mostly debtors) were kept and tried. At least that was the claim of the tour guide at Lancaster Castle, which prides itself on having been the last working castle in England, because it only closed to prisoners in 2011, and trials are still held there. The tour guide had a sense of humor that was right in line with my own, and tried to personalize the tour for those on it–at the beginning, he asked where each group of guests was from, and later on tried to tell stories that tied in those locations. When we said that we were from Maryland he asked if we lived anywhere near Annapolis, and pointed out that most criminals weren’t worth the trouble of being kept in a castle prison because it was so much less expensive just to send them off to the colonies, with Annapolis as the favored destination. According to him, the main result the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution was that the British had to find somewhere else–Australia–to send their outlaws. He also told us the story of the Pendle witches, tried at Lancaster castle, that I mentioned in my previous post.

We went to Lancaster so that Jenny could revisit the place where she spent a semester abroad in college. After strolling around town, where we found that her favorite sandwich shop had probably been taken over by a larger chain, we went on the castle tour which she had never done while she lived there; although the tours probably happened less often back when the prison was still operational. Roman and Elena fell asleep on the short drive from town to the university, so we drove around the perimeter instead of getting out to walk the campus while Jenny remembered what it was like and pointed out all the things that had changed. I engaged in some idle speculation: wouldn’t it make sense for there to be a rivalry between Lancaster University and University of York? Any athletic competition between the two would be called the War of the Roses. A British person I asked about this pointed out that college sports is not a big business in the UK, but it turns out that the two schools do have a yearly competition called the Roses Tournament, which in the most recent edition included contests in 39 different sports.

I would like to spend more time exploring the outdoors–if not camping, then at least hiking–but it’s so hard to do with young children. Nevertheless, we made two attempts to see the wonders of the natural world in this last weekend. On the way back from Lancaster, we drove through the Yorkshire Dales on our way to Malham, site of some impressive rock formations. Locals like to point out that a scene from one of the last Harry Potter films was shot there. Sadly, the light was fading fast by the time that we arrived and we weren’t sure whether what trail would take us in the most interesting direction in the limited amount of time that we had to spend there. We ended up walking half a mile along a muddy footpath right through a pasture where cows and sheep were grazing–Roman liked that–and turned around when we realized that we had no immediate prospects for seeing interesting rocks, and Roman was probably not going to stop crying until we returned to the car to warm up. Elena was a trooper all along, even in the face of a few spills into the mud.


On Monday, taking advantage of the holiday, we decided to attempt one more short trip to Brimham Rocks, where there were also supposed to be interesting rock formations. Even though the weather wasn’t ideal and a layer of fog kept us from seeing the distant sights, the rocks really delivered: windswept towers a hundred feet high, balancing stacks, beautiful textures and shapes all around. Elena was scared when I decided to climb one of the shorter formations, but very proud when I made it to the top. My climb must have inspired Roman: when we took a break, he found every rock in the area that was the right height for him to step up onto, so that he could pretend to jump off. On the walk back to the car, Elena and I discussed what names she would give to the different rock formations, and which ones would be good for a kid to climb. Any outing that ends while everyone is still cheerful is an extremely successful one!

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