Essay from Norman Olson

From Halifax to Kelmscott and Beyond

by:  Norman J. Olson

 

on May 30, 2016, Mary and I walked to the bus stop on a chilly morning…  we caught the 74 bus to the 46th Street light rail station in Minneapolis and from there it is five minutes on the train to the Airport…  we got on our 9 a.m. flight to LGA with no problem…  Mary ran into a friend on the plane and so we rode the bus together into Manhattan…  it was a hot day and since we got off a few blocks away from our actual stop, we had our first opportunity to haul our carryon suitcases around by hand…

we took the downtown subway to Columbus Circle and walked to our Holiday Inn on 57th Street…  after a rest and a cool down in the hotel, we contacted a friend of mine who lives in Manhattan and he came to the hotel where we met in the lobby…  it was really good to have a chance to talk and so we walked looking for a dinner spot, no shortage of those in Manhattan…  and settled on a little hole in the wall Cuban joint that seemed quiet and like a perfect place to talk…  so we had no sooner made our orders and got down to serious conversation when the Cuban band showed up…  they set up in about five minutes, turned their amps all the way to 10 and since conversation had become impossible, we ate up and left…

when I told him the story, my brother said that musicians seldom see their music as “background to conversation”  and I think he may be on to something there…  lol…  anyway, we finished the evening with a great conversation sitting by an outdoor fountain…  lovely ambiance, good conversation, a warm/cooling breeze and the towers of Manhattan all around…

the next morning, we walked to McDonalds for coffee and soda and then had a great hotdog for breakfast at the Columbus Circle entrance to Central Park…  then with a few stops to sketch passers by, we walked across the park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art…  I went to see my favorite old European paintings and then we spent some time looking at the Egyptian art…  I love those amazingly intricate patterns of wings etc. painted in lovely watercolor touches all those years ago in the desert of Egypt…  of the European paintings, my favorite is Oedipus and the Sphinx by Gustave Moreau…  it is kind of odd and probably not a “great” painting but, it is to me an interesting one and one of the few pieces which that very strange painter actually finished…  I love the red handled spear…  well, I  cannot explain this art stuff very well, I am afraid…

as the afternoon was wearing on, we took a bus downtown from in front of the museum and made it back to our hotel, collected our bags and headed for the pier…  I chose this hotel because it was sort of cheap (for NYC) and only about six blocks from the pier…  at the pier, we boarded the Princess Cruise Lines Pacific Princess…  a smallish cruise ship that holds some 650 passengers…  and of course, headed for the buffet…  at 8 p.m., the ship left the dock and we sailed down along the edge of Manhattan…  it was truly a spectacular sight with the sun setting behind Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty…  and a cool breeze freshening as we sailed out under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge…

after a cool but pleasant day at sea, we arrived in Halifax…  we walked through the port area of Halifax which is nicely fixed up with restaurants, a local marketplace and even a busker playing fiddle tunes for the tourists…  from the dock area, we walked up the hill maybe half a mile to the lovely public garden…  we walked around the garden and sat enjoying the wonderful fresh air and the warmth of the sun when it came through the clouds and the glorious flower beds…  I know almost nothing about flowers, but agree that they are very pretty to look at and so we feasted out eyes…

then after a stop for sodas and coffee, we made our leisurely way back down the hill to the ship…  it was a lovely day of walking in Halifax with great views out over the harbor… then we were five days at sea heading for Reykjavik, Iceland…  it was chilly outside with high temps in the lower 50s, but we were prepared and so I enjoyed a brisk walk of two miles every morning on the walking track at the top of the ship…  it was really nice seeing the gray ocean spread out to the horizon and buffeted by the wind which was pretty strong considering the ship’s motion added to the actual wind which was blowing a little bit…  the sea was calm and on the way out of Halifax, we saw many humpback whales and dolphins…  once we passed the grand banks, we saw little sea life…  we spent the days mostly bundled up on deck five reading and drawing…  it was great to be out in the ridiculously fresh air, hearing the waves crash on the side of the ship…  we found sheltered spots on deck out of the wind and it was glorious…  then after a day in the fresh air working on a drawing to go in to a lovely dinner with some very cool and interesting people who invited us to join their table…  after dinner we would go to the show in the theater, turn our clocks ahead one hour and sleep like babies “cradled in the arms of the sea…”

in Reykjavik, we paid $30 each for one of the hop on hop off buses…  so we rode the bus all around and saw the sights of the city…  it was a lot of fun because the tour guide was a sweet young man who said it was his first day on the job and kept yawning because he had been too nervous to sleep the night before…  he kept getting lost in his script…  but he was such a jolly and pleasant kid that it was super fun…  the bus was not heavily used, so on some of the legs, we were on alone with the guide and the driver…  and we had a rollicking good time joking and laughing…  as we went by the shopping center the driver stopped at a cross walk to let and elderly lady cross…  when she got right in front of the bus she turned and gave us the finger…  we all thought that was so funny that we almost split from laughing…  especially because all of the Icelanders that we actually met were lovely and friendly, if a bit stand offish at first…

the second port was Isafjordur, Iceland…  this is a small town of a few thousand people situated on a fjord with mountains streaked with snow all around…  on shore, we found a small tour operated by a local farmer that took us around to some scenic spots, including a gorgeous waterfall coming down from the mountainside…  we had scenic overlooks of the fjord and drove to the next fjord where I made a snowball out of mountain snow…  he then took us to a small town for a look around and then to his farm where he showed us the nests of the eider ducks in his fields…  when these ducks make a nest, they lay their eggs in eider down and when the chicks are old enough the nests are abandoned…  the farmers collect and sell the eider down from the abandoned nests which is very valuable…  we saw a nest with four little chicks cuddled very cozily into their eider down…

it was a cool, fresh, sunny day…  the landscape was covered with wild flowers and flowering weeds and very pretty with lots of big spectacularly yellow dandelions…  and of course the deep blue water of the fjords with the towering snow streaked cliffs rising from the sea…

the next stop was Akureyri, Iceland, a city of 18,000, so considerably larger than Isafjordur…

here we decided to walk so did a walking tour around the town which included a climb up the mountain to see the gorgeous botanical gardens and the views overlooking the fjord…  after a lovely hike around the town and through a wooded, park area down the hillside, we still had some time before we had to go back to the ship so we stopped and used the last of our kroner to buy a very strange but delicious hot dog from an outdoor stand…  there was a bus stopped near where we were sitting so we asked the driver how long it took her to make a complete circle back and forth around the town…  she said 25 minutes, and since we had that much time we got on the bus (which was free) and had a ride through the residential areas all around the town and got to see people going about their business in Iceland which was kind of cool…  the town was clean and neat and everybody we saw seemed affluent…  children seemed nicely dressed and cared for and although there were apartment blocks there were lots of private houses looking not much different from those in Minnesota…

after Iceland, we had a day at sea (more drawing on deck)…  then we arrived at Orkney Island which is part of Scotland…  on shore there we found a nice inexpensive bus tour that took us to see the local sights…  before we left on the tour, we walked around the town…  they were having some kind of commemoration at the local church for animals killed in wars and five or six horse owners had their horses on the church lawn for the people to pet and admire…  the horses were big browns and blacks with glossy coats and their manes were braided (except for one very pretty little Shetland pony who had one long braid in her bushy mane)…  they were lovely animals, with sleek powerful looking muscles and heavy hooves, and it was fun to talk to the horse owners about their horses…

on the tour we went to the small town of Stromness were we walked and looked at the old buildings looking out on the little harbor and then had lunch at a picnic table in the sun…  there was a chilly breeze off the harbor and we could see a large boat that looked like a ferry of some kind and smaller boats in the harbor in front of us…  then we went to a prehistoric archaeological dig… called Skara Brae…  which is an excavation of a stone village that was originally built around 3100 BC…  from the size of the houses, I would guess that the people were fairly small and it was interesting to try and picture those little people working hard to pile these stones in careful rows to make walls to keep them warm and safe in that cold northern place…  how hard their lives must have been… but I am sure that, like us, they had their joys to mitigate their hardships and sorrows…  and probably lived rich lives fishing and tending their farms…

after a quick look through the manor house of Skail which is nearby, we went on to see the ring of Brodgar, a Stonehenge like circle of huge stones stuck upright in the ground…  making a huge circle on an isthmus between two lakes… it is amazing to see these huge stones, to feel the smooth gray stone warm in the sun and wonder why those Neolithic people went to all this work to build these monuments… there are many theories but nobody knows for sure… we then went on to see the smaller Ring of Stennes which may be the oldest of the stone circles in Britain and may date back to the same time as the founding of Skara Brae…

the driver let those of us on the tour who were on the ship off at the end of the pier so we had a nice half mile walk back to the ship past the industrial and undeveloped areas of the port…

the next day we were in Dundee, Scotland…  we walked to the tourist office in the center of town and they gave us a map with a nice walking tour of the town which we did…  the highlight for me was a visit to their small and somewhat provincial art museum which had a magnificent Dante G. Rossetti painting of Dante’s Dream…  I have been studying Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites for years and it is always a treat for me to see these paintings which are often found in out of the way museums in the UK and elsewhere…  often museums which cannot afford a Matisse or a Jackson Pollock, so exhibit their Rossetti…  after an hour or so of just feasting my eyes on this painting, we left and walked to the Jute factory…  it was kind of sad really to see this monument to a business, the business of jute weaving, which used to be a big industry in Dundee but today is all done in India…   like in Minneapolis, we have a similar museum dedicated to the history of the flour milling industry in Minnesota…  I don’t know where flour is milled these days, but it is not in Minneapolis…  it is like they are saying with these museums, “our city used to have great important work to do and this is how we did it” implying that whatever we are doing now is pretty much thumb twiddling…

at a museum dedicated to the explorers Shackleton and Scott, we saw the old ship Discovery, a polar exploration vessel from the early 1900s, a full rigged ship with steam power supplement…  from childhood I have been fascinated by sailing ships and it was fun to imagine what a thrill it would have been for me at age ten or so to have actually stood on the deck of one of these ships and looked up at the rigging…  imagine climbing out on one of those spars with nothing for support but a foot rope and the ship rolling wildly in stormy seas…  yikes…  I was glad to get back to the calm decks and dining rooms of the Pacific Princess…  still there is something about those huge old wind driven machines that stirs me…

by the time we left Dundee, sailing south to Dover, it had warmed up a bit so we enjoyed our last sea day sitting on deck not quit bundled in every garment we owned…  then we were in Dover and the cruise was over…  we took a cab from the ship to the bus station and the bus to London Victoria Coach Station where we got another coach for Swindon at the edge of the Cotswold area of England… the British coaches are very cheap if booked in advance…  we arrived at Swindon bus station in the rain but a friendly person helped us figure out which bus to take to our hotel and so we made it dragging our bags with only a minimum of soakage…  our plan had been to rent a car in Swindon but when I saw the traffic in Swindon, I realized that my days of renting a car and navigating the roundabouts from the wrong side of the road are done…  I did that many years ago with no problem with a car full of kids!!  but I decided that driving, even in the rural areas would be too nerve wracking so we re-planned the visit by finding a bus to our hotel in the village of Lechlade…  the hotel in Lechlade hooked us up with a local guy, an old retired guy with impressive mutton chops, who sometimes drove people around in his car for a cheap rate and so the first day we had him drive us to Buscot Manor about three miles from Lechlade…

Buscot Manor is an old house that has some murals by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones…  this series of four maybe 8×4 foot paintings with smaller panels between them is based on the story of sleeping beauty and was installed in the late 1800s…  Mr. Burne-Jones was staying with his friend William Morris at the time in nearby Kelmscott and walked across the fields to work on the small panels between the main paintings…  I have wanted to make the trip to see these in the original for years and was really impressed…  in site, in the room, altogether, they are just ravishingly beautiful…  if you like that sort of thing…  which I do…  I could write a lot more about the experience of seeing these lovely pictures and my thoughts on them, on the age and ideals they embody and on 19th century art in general, but I have said much of that elsewhere and this is already 5 pages long…  the curator seemed surprised that I spent over an hour looking at the art in that room and then came back later, after our walk around the grounds to look some more…

just a few quick words about the paintings…  I love how Burne-Jones painted the draperies, the shadows, the fall of light and how these paintings are poems in tone and the lovely color is only the icing on the cake…  I think that this kind of artwork, where the medium makes images which do the work of what?  conveying meaning?  I’m not sure, but whatever it is that art does is done by the images which are made by the oil paint…  in a work in the contemporary aesthetic, the work of the painting is done by the medium or more accurately by the object which is made of the medium and even if there are images it is the object that matters…  paint on a surface, as my teachers used to say over and over and over, back in the 1960s…   but then, maybe this is all wrong…  i really do not understand art very well at all anymore…  i used to think i had it figured out…  lol  now i do what i love and i love what i do…  why not???

okay enough with the art talk… gibberish…  we walked around the huge park of the manor, some of which is plantings of huge old trees and untrimmed English style gardens and also looked at the lovely flowers in the formal walled garden…  by the time we made it back to the manor house, it was pouring rain and it was cool to be in that vast opulent old house with the rain pounding down outside and the high windows letting in a washed blue light in which the oil paintings just glowed like jewels…

the next day, we took the bus to Cirencester with a stop in the tiny village of Fairford to see the stained glass windows in the old church which dated from the 1400s…  the old church glowed with light from the lovely if somewhat faded windows…  and a musician was practicing on the keyboard which filled the space with lovely old Bach music…  (the vast pipe organ was being refurbished…) the ride to and from Cirencester  made me double glad that I did not rent a car as the roads were very narrow even outside of the towns and outside the towns cars went fast on roads that often did not have room for cars to meet but rather a place to pull over until the oncoming car had passed…  Cirencester is a much larger city than Lechlade or Fairford and we enjoyed walking around the town, looking at some flower market stalls and watching the people window shop…  we looked around the old yellow stone church and had a lovely dinner in one of the pubs…  while we were in the pub it started to pour rain and it was kind of a fun ride back to Lechlade in the bus with the rain pouring down…  it felt like we were in a submarine roaring through the walls of water down that narrow narrow road with on coming traffic missing us by inches…  and green brushy hedges right at the side of the traffic lanes with an occasional glimpse through the leaves to the rolling green hills, fields and woods beyond…

the next day we spent the day down the road from Lechlade at Kelmscott…  I will not go into the history of Kelmscott, the role it played in the life of Dante Rossetti and how he painted some of his strangest and most beautiful pictures there…  pictures of his good friend’s wife with whom he was having an affair with the consent of the friend in the early 1870s when they spent months living together there…  but, I encourage anyone who is interested to read the history, or more importantly look at the art…  Kelmscott sits about a quarter mile from the Thames river which is about 30 feet across there and regularly floods the fields (which are called water meadows) and every few years, floods the manor house as well…  it is a lovely old stone house, a large farmhouse really more than an actual manor house…  and it was great for me to walk those rooms and get a feel for the place and its history… I have read so much about the place… and it was cool to actually be there, thinking about what those Victorian artists felt and did…  I found myself contemplating the briefness of both art and life (Longfellow was dead wrong on that score)…  amid the flower gardens and the ripe and abundant nature of rural England in summer…  we were tired from walking and so spent the last hour before our ride came back sitting in the Gazebo, sketching and reading…  with the flowers everywhere, the scent of roses and the beautiful old house sitting there before us in sunlight and shade, comfortable in its old stones…  it felt very relaxing and right to be there….

I know that this Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art is not to everyone’s taste and I am not sure why I dig it so much, but I do…  different strokes for different folks, as we used to say…

the next day, the old guy gave us a ride into Swindon…  it was Sunday so the bus to Lechlade did not run…  we caught a bus back to Victoria Coach Station and from there made a connection to Birmingham…  a long way around, but the coach was like $100 cheaper than the more direct train…  and the long coach rides were like a tour of rural England…  we saw lots of fields and woodlots and lots of sheep…  the landscape reminded me somewhat of Central Wisconsin around Baldwin where I lived as a child…  I think the landscape looks kind of similar, but the climate is a bit cooler there…

to my surprise I found Birmingham to be an nice clean modern city…  we went to the art museum the next day in a light rain and enjoyed looking at a lot more Pre-Raphaelite art…  I was absolutely blown away by a very large (like eight by twelve foot) watercolor by (again) Burne-Jones…

well, this is getting way too long but that afternoon, we took the bus back to London Victoria, walked to Hyde Park Corner and caught a Piccadilly Line train Hounslow right near Heathrow were we stayed for one night…  had a great Pakistani dinner for two pounds fifty, a free breakfast the next morning and caught the tube for Heathrow…   then 8 hours over the North Atlantic to Detroit and two hours back to MSP…  where we arrived home Tuesday evening…

exhausted…