OK, I have reached London, and am staying with my lovely friend N, which is a good thing for many reasons, not least of these being that I have a nasty cold *and* cramps, and the weather is uninspiring, so it’s a good day for staying inside and catching up with my travel journalling! And there has been much to journal!
On Sunday, I went to the 11am Mass, at St Mary’s Todmorden, celebrated by my friend Jo.
It was a really lovely service, with a sermon that made me think, which is always a fine thing (also one which contained, apparently, completely unintentional subliminal pro-EU propaganda in the form of hymn tune choices. Who knew this was even possible?).
I do wish Jo lived within reasonable churchgoing range of me, but while Todmorden is many lovely things, convenient to Melbourne is not one of them. Also, I was amused to find that I did, in fact, know all the hymn tunes – Alistair at Wesley was raised Scottish Presbyterian, as was Jo, so perhaps this isn’t surprising!
We then went home for a quiet lunch.
After lunch, I did some prep for dinner and then went for a walk up the hill to the now abandoned St Paul’s Cross Stones near the still-functioning graveyard, while Jo worked on paperwork.
Up was indeed the operative word.
My phone claimed that I had climbed 26 flights of stairs.
It felt like more.
But the view was spectacular.
We then went to Evensong, which was also lovely, with the congregation outnumbered by the choir, as is traditional. I was impressed with Jo’s sermon – she had discovered during the afternoon that the readings she had were for the wrong week, and had to rewrite the sermon from scratch – but I’m pretty sure I’m the only person who would have known that (er, until now. Sorry, Jo! But I did think you were brilliant.).
I made dinner, on the grounds that yes, I might be the guest, but I was also the person who hadn’t been working full time all day – both Jo and her husband had given three services (I was not quite enough of a groupie to go to the 8am). And I overcatered on the grounds that I am Catherine. Also, Jo mentioned that her husband really likes pasta. But most of all, also because I always make carbonara by eye, and it turns out that when the skillet is a different size to the one at home, I’m hopeless at judging a sensible amount…
We kind of rolled off to bed after that.
On Monday I made my way back to York, and dropped my bags at the Bar Convent (which is part functioning convent, part museum, and part B&B) before heading out to explore York some more. I started – to my shame – at the Henry VII museum (I still can’t believe they have a Henry VII museum in York!), which was OK, but a little overpriced.
I then found a rather lovely church that used to be part of the Benedictine monastery in York, and is the only part still functioning as a church.
There was a free exhibition inside about the history of monasteries in York and of this church in particular, with a rather lovely CD playing in the background. Very peaceful.
My next stop was the Shambles and the start of the self-guided Cat Tour of York.
Yes, there is a cat tour.
Apparently, at some point in the 19th century, someone started putting cat statues all over random buildings in York.
As you do.
And now, you can get a map and go looking for them.
As a method of seeing lots of random bits of York, it’s quite a fun one.
I didn’t find all the cats, but I did find quite a lot of them, as you are probably guessing from these photos.
I had lunch at Chloe’s of York again, where my baked potato came with a side salad and the offer of a side of crisps. I found this hilarious but unnecessary, and continued on my cat-inspired way.
I then stopped in at the Minster.
I was initially disappointed, because there was a heap of scaffolding around, blocking views (which was particularly frustrating in view of the somewhat steep entry fee), but it is still a gorgeous building.
I was in between services, but I did coincide with a brief moment for prayer and reflection, at the end of which the Canon mentioned that the York Mystery Plays were being performed in the Minster that evening – hence the scaffolding.
I knew that was what the scaffolding was for, but I had thought the Mystery Plays had already finished. To my delight, there were still tickets left, so I bought one, and then left to finish the last of my Cat Tour and then get totally lost on my way back to the Bar Convent.
(I never did find the Richard III museum.)
I checked in at the Convent and basically stopped long enough to put my bags in my room and lie down for half an hour to rest my feet before heading back out for dinner and Mystery Plays.
Dinner was at Côte, which turns out to be a franchise serving unexpectedly excellent French food. I had asparagus vinaigrette followed by roasted chicken breast and then strawberry crepes. It was all delicious, and surprisingly cheap.
And then it was off to the Minster for the Mystery Plays. Photos were forbidden, so prepare for a big wall of text!
The Mystery Plays date from the 14th century, when they were originally performed by the different guilds of York in wagons around the town. Each guild took and dramatised a scene from the Bible, from creation to final judgment, generally one appropriate to the guild. So the shipbuilders did Noah’s Ark, the goldsmiths did the Three Kings, and the butchers did the Crucifixion (which implies exactly as much pig’s blood as you are probably imagining).
There were originally fifty plays, lasting a total of 20 hours, and apparently the scripts are still available. Obviously, they picked and chose from this to get the performance down to about 3 1/2 hours, which was long enough. The plays have only been performed in the Minster once before, though York started reviving them in the 1950s (Judy Dench played an angel in one of the early ones), so this really was rather a special thing to get to see.
In terms of language, the program suggests that they did, in fact, use the original language – and certainly, it was absolutely full of alliteration and rhyme and rhythm and also very broad Yorkshire, but it was also almost entirely comprehensible, which made me wonder if they had modernised it slightly. They can’t have changed a lot, though.
As for the plays themselves… well, it’s hard to describe them other than spectacular in the most literal sense. There was a lot of pageantry about it – the creation scene featured huge, 2m diameter balloons on strings, painted to look like the planets and rising on kite strings above our heads to float in the vaulted ceilings of the Minster, and more kites of birds, as well as a whale in three puppet parts. It was unspeakably gorgeous. The York Cathedral Choir supplied singing angels for many scenes.
Noah’s ark featured all sorts of gorgeous animal puppets and suits, including two very enthusiastic young rabbits bouncing like mad, and two dodos, who ran squawking noisily up to the ark just a little bit too late to get in. I suspect the local primary school provided most of the zoo. The ark scene, incidentally, was very funny, with the shipbuilders’s version of Noah telling God that he didn’t know how to build a boat, and God saying “Eh, it’s easy, ye just take a lot of wood and saw it into planks like so…” and so forth. Noah’s wife was not happy about going onto the ark, and not happy about any of this, and not afraid to say so, at length. (Her portrayal was, unsurprisingly, a tad sexist. But entertaining nonetheless.)
The Abraham and Isaac story was stylised, but unexpectedly moving (I found myself in tears at all sorts of unexpected points in this play), with clear and deliberate parallels both in words and staging with the crucifixion, and we moved straight from there into the New Testament.
The Annunciation and Joseph’s Troubles (!) was another place where I found myself moved to tears without being sure why – I think the space worked quite well here. I liked that they had Mary sing the Magnificat. And then the angels visited the shepherds, who really felt that they could sing the Gloria better and louder than them (they managed louder, at any rate, and they really must have been quite decent musicians to stay that consistently out of tune for that long). They kept on bursting out into off-key Glorias and then hushing each other because of waking the baby.
The three kings and the massacre of the innocents was really horrible, and that was me in tears again, and I don’t think I was the only one.
And now suddenly we have grown-up Jesus (the only professional actor in the plays, and actually not my favourite, as it turned out), coming to be baptised by John and then tempted by Lucifer, who was having more fun than anyone else in this play and who was also involved in rather more sections of the play than I ever recall reading about in the Bible. One of the more amusing aspects of medieval folk religion of this sort is that because the Bible was in Latin, the people writing these plays tended to have the general outline of the story OK, but the details a little bit more fuzzy, and also to project their own preoccupations on to them.
Lucifer was an excellent villain, somewhere between pantomime and Bond villain, given to asides to the audience in which he explained the purpose of his plots and how he always liked to work through women, thank you medieval misogyny. He was also distinctly attractive, even from way up the back in row X where I was sitting (actually quite a nice seat, because of the grand scale of all the pageantry – looking down from way above worked rather well), and very charismatic. It sounds shallow to say that this was good casting… but it really was good casting.
We then had Christ’s ministry and entry into Jerusalem, which ended with the menacing appearance from the back and top of the stage of the Roman soldiers with Pilate, before the lights went out for interval. Very effective.
After interval, we moved straight into the Passion, which was clearly trying to be less antisemitic than the text wanted it to be (I was amused that Caiaphas and Annas were referred to constantly as Bishops, however), and was also very pro-Roman. Pilate was clearly a Good Guy, and it was the evil Jewish priests who were determined to kill Jesus. Interestingly, Pilate’s wife’s dream came from Lucifer, who explained to us that if Jesus died, then Lucifer would be utterly defeated, and that sometimes, one must do good in order that evil may come, and how fortunate that here is a woman again who he could deceive.
This was certainly interesting theology on several counts.
It was also an interesting touch that the Roman soldier whose ear was healed by Jesus became one of the most determined to see him killed, which I found fairly convincing psychology.
The other thing I found fascinating about this section, as a church singer who knows the King James text really, really well, was the fact that the language used was never quite the words I expected and had in my head. The King James translation was still 250 years away, so the bits where Jesus’ words were quoted were obviously a contemporary, verbal translation.
This section was all rather gruelling, as was the crucifixion, though the latter was lightened slightly by the Roman soldiers chatting in broad Yorkshire about how best to hammer in nails and pretty much sounding like tradies of any era. More harrowing (and effective) was the way the entire cast cried out with every hammer blow, while Jesus himself was absolutely silent.
The resurrection featured both the three women coming to anoint Jesus and then also Mary Magdalene encountering Jesus in the Garden, before we moved on to the general appearance to the disciples, where everyone got to feel his wounds, not just Thomas. This was a nice touch, and we were reminded that those who believed without touching were even more blessed.
And then it was onto the final battle between angels and demons (with the choirboys and girls clearly having a great time defeating the grownup demons), and the last judgment, with many pointed moral lessons for the crowd, and a moral epilogue, just in case we had missed the point.
It was all rather magnificent, especially in that space, but also very draining, and when I stumbled out a bit after 11, with a growing headache and sore throat and cramps, I was very glad to find a taxi and not have to walk a kilometre in the dark back to my hotel (especially as there was no guarantee that I would not get lost, as I had several times earlier that day).
Alas, I then went to bed and completely failed to sleep, with the aforementioned headache etc (I also realised, later, that I had somehow walked more than 20km in laps of York that day, which probably contributed to my tiredness), and so I got up yesterday feeling much the worse for wear to catch my train for London.
Yesterday afternoon was for sleeping – I really do have a cold, it isn’t just tiredness, drat it – but the evening was for much finer things! My friends N and L also turned 40 recently, and we decided to have a high tea (well, dinner, since it was 7:30) at the Ritz!
We had a look in at Fortnum and Mason’s on the way, to admire the super posh biscuits and the marzipan fruit…
The Ritz really does feel terribly posh – we all felt a little underdressed and working class, not to say colonial. Our waiters were good fun – very dry and poker faced, so you had to mentally replay what they said to realise they were joking.
The food was good, and extremely plentiful. The sandwiches were particularly nice – none of us had really eaten all day, so we fell on them like a ravening horde. Our waiter kindly brought us two more plates full.
The cakes were nice but not spectacular – the white chocolate mousse with the passionfruit centre was the best, but the lemon macaron was also very good. These were also endlessly replaced, though we were less inclined to stuff ourselves on these!
The scones were great, and came with clotted cream, a novelty to all of us, as well as strawberry jam. Clotted cream… tastes pretty much like double cream? I don’t think my palate is sophisticated enough for this.
And then they brought around a birthday cake, while the orchestra played “Happy Birthday To You”. The cake was inscribed “Minime Senuisti”, which apparently means ‘You don’t look a day older’ (thank you N, and your year 12 Latin for that).
And then they brought around a trolley with more cake on it, including a rhubarb and ginger cake.
So there was, in fact, enough cake. Also, tea.
Incidentally, when I say the Ritz was posh, check out the Powder Room.
Yes, that is a mural you see on the wall. And pink marble.
After dinner, N had found a show called “Sh*tfaced Showtime”, which sounded dubious, but turned out to be pretty funny. The premise is that you take five people who have rehearsed a lightly abridged version of the Pirates of Penzance, and then get one randomly selected cast member ridiculously drunk. So you have Frederick and the Major General and Mabel and the Nurse singing patter songs and arias with perfect tuning and diction and doing all the traditional dancing around, and the Pirate King dancing off in the wrong direction and forgetting when it’s his turn to sing and getting distracted by the torches and deciding to randomly pretend he is a dog and confiding to the audience that he has absolutely no clue what this next line is but he knows he is pretty pissed off right now, and so forth.
This was a lot funnier than it sounds, especially with the rest of the cast attempting to keep the play on track by saying things like “I wonder where the Pirate King is!” or “Do you think there might be a way to make Frederick stay with the Pirates?”.
And then it was home and to bed. My plans for today, assuming I can get the photos in this to work, involve a rest day, with maybe a little exploration of Walthamstow – there is apparently a William Morris museum in the vicinity, which sounds easy and local. Tomorrow is the Globe Theatre, so a quiet day today will be good…