Laura Ingalls Wilder and Me: My day on Rocky Ridge Farm

I’m standing here, next to a life-sized cut out of Laura Ingalls Wilder, in front of her side porch and the door that leads to her farmhouse kitchen on Rocky Ridge Farm, now known as the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum.

Visiting Rocky Ridge has been on my personal to-do list since I first found out that she’d lived on this section of Ozark land for more than 60 years. Wilder traveled extensively as a child across the Midwest as her family looked for a place to settle down and prosper, and each of the places they stopped and lived has become part of the “tour” of Wilder sites. With this stop at Rocky Ridge today, I’ve been to every site but the one in upstate New York featured in Farmer Boy.

It’s hard, sometimes, to process the emotions that come from fulfilling a long-held dream. I brought my sister and my little girls along for this trip, and having them there added to my joy at finally walking on Wilder’s land, touring her house, and viewing her things, lovingly preserved as it was when she died on Feb. 10, 1957 at the age of 90. As our docent explained during our tour, Wilder’s daughter, Rose, locked the house three days after Wilder’s death, and it remained in stasis until three months later, when, with Rose’s permission and the formation of the non-profit society that currently maintains it, the home opened to the public for tours.

I’m grasping for words to express how it felt to stand in Laura’s kitchen, seeing the pipes that Almanzo had installed himself to bring their spring into the house so she’d have running water with which to cook. One counter held her flour sifter, a board, rolling pin, and ceramic bowl, looking for all the world that she’d stepped away for a moment from baking project. Her blue willow-patterned dishes, everyday favorites, gleam from an open cupboard. The green linoleum that tops the short counters–made by Almanzo to accommodate her petite size–is original.

Everything in the house remains as she left it in 1957. Through the kitchen to the dining room, visitors can spot Rose’s ladder stairs to her upstairs bedroom on their left. The dining room table, bought by Rose to furnish the Rock House in 1929, had been brought back to the main farm in 1936, when the couple moved back in after spending eight years in the Rock House that Rose had built for them. On a shelf built as a triangle to fit snugly in the corner above a heater, the clock that Almanzo traded a load of hay for during their first Christmas still tells the time, carefully wound every morning by the docents in charge for the day.

I found it hard not to touch things as I went through the house. (My preschoolers were very good at keeping their hands in their pockets. They started teasing me about doing the same, and made me giggle.) But it was hard! Most tables and dressers held a lace doilies, knitted by Laura in a favored “pineapple” pattern. Her sewing box sat under a table, ready for use; her nightgown lay across her bed. Her desk held letters from publishers and others; her parlor window seat held three pillows, one of which was embroidered by Angeline Day Wilder, Almanzo’s mother.

Laura’s library, Almanzo’s canes, Rose’s organ, and most of all, their space, lovingly built, kept, and maintained, echoed with the remembrances of their lives, lived.

The home is the showpiece that Laura intended, made from materials taken right off the farm, and emerging into view from the road at the perfect spot coming out from town. It’s a lovely home, and I can easily see why she didn’t want to be parted from it for long.

The museum by Rocky Ridge, now down from the house in its own space with its own parking lot, continued the collection of things that once belonged to many of the people in the Little House. Pa’s fiddle, once owned by Charles Ingalls, has pride of place in the gallery. But we can also see Caroline (Ma) Ingalls’ mother-of-pearl handled pen, Mary’s Braille slate, and Rose’s writing desk. I had to send my little girls, who had been very patient but were getting restless, with my sister into the attached store early so I could be sure to view it all: every. single. thing.

Of course, I spent way too much money in the gift shop. But I also signed stock; they had several copies of my first book, The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane, Literary Journalist. I also spotted it in the Rock House in a display about Rose, which I found flattering.

We had a very late lunch in town, then took pictures in Mansfield’s town square and visited the Wilder and Lane graves in the cemetery. I could have spent days, but one day was enough to view absolutely everything.

I highly recommend a stop if you’re in the area. My little girls, at 4 and 5, found it to be a fun experience. Walking the trails around the farm gave them plenty of exercise; somehow, and I realize how silly this is, I hadn’t realized that a farm in the mountains would be on such a significant incline. We were prepared with good shoes, so it didn’t trip us up. If mobility is an issue for you, don’t worry; handicapped parking is available at the museum, the main farm house, and the Rock House. We chose, mostly, to walk. We avoided the over-the-hill walking trail between the Rock House and the farm house, but otherwise walked everywhere.

I sent my mother a selfie of my sister, my little girls, and me, all smiling, pink-cheeked, from Laura’s front porch. She texted back, “Cool! Do you feel different?”

I gotta say, “Kinda, yeah.”

Remembering the Peshtigo Fire

October 8, 1871–Fire rampaged through northeastern Wisconsin, wiping out the city of Peshtigo and claiming the lives of an estimated 2,400 people. Though the fire occurred on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, with greater loss of life, very little is known about it outside of Wisconsin.

That conundrum (How can something so devastating be so forgotten?) led me down many paths over the course of my career. My imagination first got caught up with the fire in fourth grade, when I wrote about it in an illustrated manuscript that took a prize at the Wisconsin State Fair. But later on, when I became a reporter in that same region, covering the city government for the city and towns of Peshtigo, I was able to dig deeply into that history and report about it in a series of stories that ran the week that began with Monday, Oct. 7, 1996, commemorating the 125th anniversary of the fire.

I started looking through the clips of the series recently, which I’ve kept as examples of enterprise reporting and as groundwork for more potential research. I wrote the story in five parts, one for each day that week, with Tuesday’s pieces focusing on the story of the fire itself and published on its anniversary. Those pieces were edited together and picked up by the Associated Press for national distribution, one of the few of my early works for which that happened.

The entire week also represents the first time I allowed myself to spread my wings as writer, using descriptive language to tell a story that few knew well, and fewer still know well today.

“Modern day Peshtigo bustles with life and industry. People in the city smile as others pass. A thriving industrial park attracts the cream of business and industry. Badger Park beckons the lunch-hour patron as well as the children of the nearby elementary school … It’s such a pretty town. With such a horrifying history.” (Lauters, EagleHerald, Oct. 7, 1996)

I went on to describe the town, the drought, and the lack of communication lines from the north to the south because of wild fires that were breaking out due to construction of railroad lines through the dry woods. I used original source material that included local residents’ recollections of survivor stories, survivor diaries, and my own newspaper’s archives. I finished that day with the line from an editorial by 1871 Eagle editor Luther Noyes: “Fires are still raging all over the country. The raw air of autumn is being well-cooked by fire.” (Eagle, Sept. 24, 1871)

Noyes’ words were prophetic. On Tuesday, Oct. 8, 1871, as the Rev. Peter Pernin writes in his diary, a muffled roaring sound came from the west. He knew instantly that he needed to head to the Peshtigo River. Mill workers on the east side of the river already were battling sparks and flames there, but by 9 p.m., most workers’ families were in bed.

Then flames rose from the rest along Oconto Avenue, and engulfed everything in their path. Bells rang all over town. As many as could do so headed for that same river, hoping that the water, shallow with the drought, could save their lives. Pernin writes about struggling on the bridge over the River, as people from both sides of it tried to get to the other, hoping for safety, and that he managed to push himself and his cart–containing the Tabernacle that housed the Sacrament–into the water itself, immersing them both.

“I came out of that river about half past three in the morning, and from that time I was in a very different condition, both morally and physically, to that in which I had previously been,” Pernin wrote.

Pernin wasn’t alone. Fire conditions were said to be so hot, many people simply blazed up when the flames hit them. A final death count would be impossible for this reason, and because no one knew just how many people were in the region at the time.  A census would show only homesteaders and citizens; the area, however, was filled with railway workers and others who’d just arrived from Chicago for the work promised in the region.

Nothing but ashes, and a single green-timber framed house, remained in the entire city.

I interviewed numerous descendants of fire survivors, and their stories ran the next day. I wrapped the series with what amounted to an annotated bibliography of sources for those who were interested in learning more.

The experience fired my imagination. Resources were sent from Wisconsin to Chicago, to aid residence there, before the state government even knew about their own devastation. The governor’s wife, in residence in Madison while her husband headed to Chicago, commandeered an aid train and sent it north when word reached her.

The papers covered Chicago.

The history illustrated numerous things for me, but one thing was made manifestly clear: Coverage of events can only occur if someone knows the event is happening, and if that event is judged to be significant enough to an audience.

Chicago as a large city, wiped out, remained the story of the day. The small town wiped out in northern Wisconsin hardly rated, in comparison, despite the loss of life. Already in 1871, regional differences in urban and rural markets for coverage became apparent.

But it’s important to remember the tragedy at Peshtigo for numerous reasons. The city today, is small, but it thrives. The region prospers. Out of the ashes, hope survived.

A Saturday at the Great Minnesota Get-Together

Every year, the Minnesota State Fair calls all comers to visit, eat, play, talk politics, and view the best of the best of the farm-produced animals, produce, crops, and goods available in the State. The event happens at the end of August, culminating in Labor Day, and for some, it’s an event not to be missed.

I first went to the fair almost twenty years ago, when I was working on my doctorate at the University of Minnesota. My husband and I lived in a tiny apartment in a complex right next to the grounds, and complex residents received free tickets to the fair to compensate for the hassle we faced during the season just getting in and out of our driveway. So, we went.

It’s become a bit of a tradition, ever since.

We haven’t been in the last few years, because it just hasn’t been possible for one reason or another, but we found that we had a free Saturday during the fair, with weather projected to be utterly gorgeous. We bundled up our preschoolers and headed to the Twin Cities early, to try and beat the “big” crowd, which was futile, as everyone else had the same idea.

We’ve learned a few things in our time going to the fair. First, never park next to the grounds. On truly beautiful days, those lots fill up fast, can cost quite a bit, and can be difficult to navigate to and from. Our preference is to park in an express park-and-ride lot and take the express bus right to the main gates. It’s cheaper, more convenient, and we don’t have to deal with fair traffic. This year, we parked at the Mall of America express lot across from the East Parking Garage.

I bought our transit tickets on the Metro Transit app, showed them to the friendly Metro Transit staff, and on we hopped–two adults and two preschoolers for $10, round trip. (Next year, the same trip will cost us $20 as the girls will be too old for the under five discount.)

The bus took us directly to the main entrance and Transit Hub at the back of one of the University of Minnesota St. Paul Campus parking lots. There, we could purchase tickets on site. We opted to buy ours online, and present the bar code for scanning on my phone to gain entrance to the grounds. Once inside, we headed directly for the West End Market, perched at that entrance.

The West End Market used to be Heritage Square, and traces of that history remain in a newer building that offers a displays and exhibits about the fair’s history and the art that surrounds the newer open-air stalls with goods that speak to Minnesota’s past. I stopped at the Watkins booth for vanilla extract, a staple in my kitchen. Matt took the girls to the shaved ice cart for two enormous confections that we all shared before girding our loins to head toward the Midway.

Because it was a beautiful Saturday at the fair, the crowds were challenging to navigate. I’ve seen, in the past, crowds so thick it would be easy to body surf through them. We managed, though, scooping up a bucket of fresh french fries, taking a turn at a feat-of-strength game booth, and viewing horses. We followed one lone sheep on a leash up Judson Avenue toward the international market, another favorite stop, and made use of the restrooms next to it.

(Restrooms at the fair are another big story. Fun fact: It was coverage of the 1911 Minnesota State Fair that led me to the work that would define how I approached my dissertation and later book: The Farmer’s Wife magazine. A reporter asked the editor of the Farmer’s Wife about the new restrooms on Machinery Hill at the fair, which were meant to offer farm women a respite from their corsets and other accoutrements. They were well-received.)

In recent years, big, well-maintained facilities have been added near the big market places to supplement existing restrooms, and while there will still lines on the women’s sides, the addition of family restrooms made it much easier to get in and out with two little girls who had to go, like, right now.

At the International Market, Matt took the ladies around the booths while I held a spot in the benches in front of the stage, which featured music by Papa Shalifa in the style of the Caribbean. We listened for a while, dancing, until we needed to escape the crowd and head toward the street to find some lunch.

We bought fresh, piping hot corn dogs from a truck on the corner, and turned up the road to find a spot on a bench facing the street  outside the main food building. We ate our corn dogs, drank our bottled water, and played with the new toys the girls had won at the strength booth. We watched the crowds, and I headed into the food building to get another fair favorite: deep-fried cheese curds.

The line for the curds stretched out the doors on both sides of the building, but it went very quickly. The booth is popular enough that the staff there have the procedure down. Present cash only at the window, get your ticket, then move down the counter where someone will take your ticket and hand you your curds. I got a bucket. It was a theme, OK? And we ate them all.

Keeping our spot on the street became important when  we realized the daily 2 p.m. parade was about to start. The girls clapped and waved at the bands, the farm and community princesses, the funny floats, and the Shriner’s cars. We loved watching the crowds go by.

After the parade, we ambled up another block and over to see some more of the booths, the food, and the fun. We watched people slide down the giant slide for a  minute, then looked through the merchant booths in the grandstand. We took a break, then, hanging out in the shade under the grandstand and trying to decide if we were up for doing anything else at the fair.

We decided we had to do one more thing: Get a bucket of chocolate chip cookies from Sweet Martha’s, a fair tradition that goes really well with the ice cold milk they also sell. We munched as we made our way out the same way we came in, taking the bus back to our car.

If you really want to do the entire fair, you’ll need to go more than once. That said, we managed to eat all the fair food we were craving, see a show, catch the parade, see some animals, go shopping, and enjoy the sunshine, so we felt accomplished. If you want to go, the fair runs through Labor Day. Our girls weren’t interested in the rides, but they have those, too. Have fun!

A Family Trip to Toronto

Have you ever traveled with preschoolers?

It’s an adventure.

Last week, I attended my annual discipline’s convention, AEJMC, this year held in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. I’m a member of the History Division’s leadership team, and I presented an award, judged a paper competition, and attended panels and presentations with new research in the field.

I also brought along my husband and youngest two children, both of whom are now 4. I was not alone. Colleagues with children often make the trip, as AEJMC’s convention always falls in the first two weeks of August, when many summer camps and plans are complete and school has not yet started. It gives families an opportunity for a last getaway before our calendars fill up.

In our case, it also gave our youngest an opportunity for multiple travel firsts, and we made a game of it for our younger adventurers.

First number one: Riding in an airplane.

We flew Air Canada, which is a remarkably family friendly airline. We four ended up in a row, two seats on either side of the aisle. I tucked C in by the window on my side and A sat by the window on the other side, with my husband next to her. Ahead of our trip, we packed each of them a backpack with a change of clothes, a Mifold car seat (just in case), LeapPads, and snacks. Our ladies put on their earphones and watched Mickey Mouse on the back of the seats in front of them; they thought it was a treat! We learned about how we stay buckled on a plane, but we can unbuckle if the seat belt light is off, if necessary.

C borrowed my phone to look out her window, because she was too short to see out without an extra angle. She thought the clouds were neat.

First number two: Riding on a train

A was super excited to ride a real train for the first time. We’d been on small train rides before, at amusement parks, the zoo, and a museum, but this would be the first time we took a train to actually go somewhere. We’d learned that the Union-Pearson Express train would take us directly from the airport to downtown Toronto, within blocks of our hotel, for about $10 U.S. per adult. Children under 12 ride free, which seemed like a good bargain for us. It was fast, easy, and the girls enjoyed watching the city go by “fast”.

Once at Union Station, we went outside, planning to catch a cab. We couldn’t find a taxi stand, and ended up walking the few blocks to our hotel instead. That turned out to be a good thing, as we all had the wiggles from sitting still for so long.

Our hotel had a great pool, and we spent some time in it after we found a very late lunch/early dinner underground at a Food Court that is part of the PATH system in Toronto. PATH is essentially an underground walking trail that links much of the downtown area and helps prevent having to walk outside in bad weather.

On our second day, we had first number three: Riding on a subway.

We took the subway to the Museum stop, and we headed above ground to visit the Royal Ontario Museum. Friendly museum staff directed us to the second level, which they claimed was the most popular with small children. We found that to be the case; the girls loved the dinosaurs, the children’s gallery with numerous hands-on activities, the bat cave, and the birds.

In early afternoon, we headed to the familiar Golden Arches across from the Museum for a late lunch, then took a walk around the outside of the Museum, getting ice cream cones from a truck and watching the pigeons. Eventually, we made our way back toward our hotel, and spent more time in the pool.

I was tied up with numerous conference activities on our third day, but the PATH allowed my husband to take the girls to Eaton Center, a large shopping mall that held a Disney Store as well as fountains and other fun things to see.

On our last day, the girls had first number four: Riding in a taxi.

The Mifold car seats are brilliant. They fold down into a compact rectangle that is lightweight and can easily be stowed in a backpack, but they are fully compliant with U.S. and Canadian federal safety standards. I unfolded ours, buckled the girls in, and we took a short cab ride to Roundhouse Park, which is the area right by the CN Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium, and the Railway Museum.

The Museum wasn’t yet open when we got there, but we walked around the plaza by the fountain, ate cotton candy, and eventually made our way back to Union Station to take the train back to the airport for our return trip.

When asked, the girls said their favorite part of the trip was “everything,” though A really liked the train, both liked the pool, and C really liked the plane. All in all, it was a successful first big travel adventure for all.

From LaCrosse to Pepin on the Great River Road, and LauraPalooza too!

LauraPalooza is one of my favorite places to go. A convention wholly dedicated to amalgamating the world of Laura Ingalls Wilder fans, scholars, and researchers, the event is sponsored by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association and is held every two to three years.

This year, the gathering convened in the LaCrosse, Wis., area with an eye toward a visit to Pepin, Wis., on the last day. Pepin is closest to where Laura was born in a small cabin about seven miles northeast of the town, which is located on the banks of Lake Pepin, an exceptionally wide spot of the Mississippi River.

I wasn’t able to attend all of this year’s convention, but I arrived Tuesday afternoon in time to hear the last few presentations, including a Q and A with Wilder expert William Anderson. Wednesday morning offered presentations about the psychology of the mother-daughter relationship, the “missing” Grace Ingalls,  and an entertaining presentation about the route taken by Laura and Almanzo from De Smet, S.D., to Mansfield, Mo., in 1894.

The afternoon, however, was taken up with the trip to Pepin.

I drove myself, and headed straight up the Great River Road to do so. The route, 75 miles from LaCrosse to Pepin on Highway 35, takes drivers through numerous small towns that sprung up along the Mississippi River during its heyday as the main means of travel in the area. The Mississippi still welcomes boat traffic, and in fact, it’s an active thoroughfare. The views along the way are spectacular, and each little town does its best to help travelers on their way.

I stopped in Nelson at the Nelson Cheese Factory on the way (on the recommendation of LIWLRA Homesite Representative Lynn Urban) and enjoyed a white chocolate raspberry ice cream cone. It’s a cozy place that also offers a variety of lunch items, coffee, wine, and assorted other products that make it an ideal place to get a snack and stretch my legs.

I then made my way through Pepin to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Birthplace Wayside.

I’ve been there several times, first in 1990 as a fresh-eyed 18-year-old on her first road trip without parents. That was nearly exactly 29 years ago. The little cabin that marks the site has been replaced once since then, and its sturdy construction, nestled in among the trees that have really grown in the last thirty years, made it look cozy.

LIWLRA and local host volunteers Susan Goettl and Julie Miller dressed the part for the event, staffing the cabin in their calico dresses and bonnets, and they dressed the cabin as well. Normally, it’s open to visitors but left empty to keep things from walking off. As a treat on Wednesday, however, Miller and Goettl had dressed the cabin, as well, making it appear as cozy as it might have in Laura’s day.

One special treat came from Anderson, who came along on the tour.

bill
Bill Anderson points out the general area where the original cabin was located.

He pointed out the general area that the original cabin had once stood, several feet southwest of the replica in a spot roughly near the wayside driveway’s entrance. A little rain kept umbrellas up, but it didn’t dampen the enthusiasm the crowd had for learning something new about Laura.

That stop kicked off the afternoon, which also featured a visit to the Museum in town, which had Wilder exhibits and merchandise. I also drove down toward the lake, up to the town park named after Wilder, and out to the farmer’s stand on the corner of the GRR and County CC, which takes visitors out to to the homesite.

Also scheduled were guided visits of the Oakwood Cemetery, where several significant people are buried, a supper, and a dance to mimic the Dance at Grandpa’s featured in Laura’s book, Little House in the Big Woods. Knowing I had to drive all the way home, however, meant I had to leave earlier than anticipated. I missed the dance, but I heard that it was a good time.

The Great River Road is always open for traveling, and a fun, leisurely drive to take. It’s not necessary to pair it with a trip to Pepin, but it’s always interesting to make that stop.

And as for LauraPalooza? The next convention will be near Malone, New York, birthplace of Almanzo Wilder, in summer, 2022. I’m already saving up.

Just Two Weeks to LauraPalooza

So I’m pretty late in getting my registration in, but I’m excited to be heading to LauraPalooza in two weeks. While I won’t be able to go for the entire three-day conference, I’m really looking forward to the day that I’ll be there.

The program shows a set of research presentations that focus on Rose Wilder Lane and on On the Way Home, and a bus trip to Pepin with special programming. I look forward to seeing some of my Laura friends, too.

That entire week will include not only LauraPalooza, but a road trip to Walnut Grove over the weekend to attend the Little House television show cast reunion. Guests will include two of my favorite people, Alison Arngrim and Dean Butler, as well as several original cast members. One, Radames Pera, also played the young Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu, and my husband (a martial artist) is excited to get his autograph.

I know several other Laura friends who plan to make the whole week one long Laura trip. And as Alison recently said on Twitter, it will be “amazeballs!”

Keep an eye on this space to hear more about it when it happens.

The Pace of Change in U.K. Media: 26 years later

My trip to London in March gave me numerous opportunities to research and play tourist, and one of the things I planned to observe on my return there–after more than 26 years, actually–was how the media landscape had changed.

Some changes were blazingly obvious: Nearly every transaction I undertook in my 2019 trip involved my phone. In 1992, I had access to a single pay phone and a calling card that I could afford to use once a week, on Sundays, to talk to my family for about fifteen minutes. In 2019, my cell phone stayed almost constantly in my hand, and while calls were significantly cheaper than in 1992, I actually used it most for everyday things. I had constant access to information on it, and I think I used the Maps feature the most. I could, and did, map out a walk or a transit route to the places I wanted to go, and it steered me right every time.

In 1992, I got lost on Fleet Street, though I did eventually find my way back to the Tube station by looking at all the clearly marked signs in the city center, I appreciated the 2019 map-at-hand. It even told me when there were delays on the trains, construction on streets that could slow traffic, and blocked sidewalks.

It was brilliant.

Tickets to the play I went to were confirmed to my phone. My London Explorer Pass actually came with an app that allowed me to get tickets electronically, then helpfully kept track of the places I’d gone and had yet to go. While I bought an Oyster card for use on the public transit in London, I could also have downloaded an app to have the card on my phone, something I made note of for later trips.

I looked up museum hours and locations, made split second decisions and choices about where I’d go based on information I found in my hand, and occasionally paid for a taxi with my mobile wallet. I also used it to text, take pictures, and converse with my family in the States over video chat.

I do use my phone regularly for most of these things in the States, too, but the ease of use in 2019 Britain really highlighted the speed of the changes that have taken place since 1992.

A second, less obvious media change lay in the television choices.

In 1992, Harlaxton College had one television room, and limited channels. My host family in town had one television, and one license for it. Programming was fairly limited. The idea that televisions had to be licensed seemed novel to me at the time.

In 2019, I didn’t even notice a difference in programming, frankly. My hotel rooms each had a television with dozens of channels and access to Netflix and other streaming services. My friend’s home had a television with cable and WiFi access.

Programming wasn’t a focus on of my trip at all. However, I noted that BBC Radio still is going strong with original programming, the local media landscape is rich with original work, and British programs in general remain popular. I was happy to see I could take my favorite home with me; “The Great British Bake-Off” now can be viewed on Netflix. And I think that might be the biggest takeaway. There’s a LOT of crossover programming available in both countries in a way there wasn’t in 1992. Except for limited BBC partnerships with PBS, things seemed pretty restricted in 1992. That isn’t the case in 2019.

Finally, I noticed a decided preference in Britain for paperless transactions. While cash is still accepted most places, most Brits have chip-and-pin cards they use for virtually all transactions. It’s rare to find a place that isn’t equipped to handle the cards, and occasionally I got a clear look of “ah, yes, you’re a tourist” when I pulled out cash. (Cash, because it was cheaper for me to take a hit on currency conversion pulling cash once from an ATM than it was to take the individual fees that occurred with each cashless transaction in a different country.)

Food for thought.

Last Day in London: St. Paul’s Cathedral, the London Wall, and the Museum of London

I arrived in London shortly after noon by train from Manchester, and had to make the critical decision about what to do with my last afternoon. I decided to combine two things that exist fairly close to each other: St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Museum of London.

As one docent put it, St. Paul’s claims the honor of being the people’s church. When great tragedy befalls England, people flock to the cathedral for solidarity, fellowship, and prayer. This version of the cathedral dates to just after the Great Fire of London in 1666, which took out most of the city proper. Redesigned by legendary architect Christopher Wren (who is interred there), building is constructed in the shape of a cross and contains the only dome of its kind.

The steps of St. Paul’s beckon to all (and are featured in Mary Poppins), and the day I was there, the space was reasonably crowded with visitors. Despite the crowd, the cathedral retains its status as a place of worship, as visitors are reminded on the hour with a moment of silence and prayers. I took the self-guided audio tour to learn about the art, architecture, and people of St. Paul’s, and I felt moved.

At the high altar, I lit a candle for those I have lost this year, including my mentor, Hazel Dicken-Garcia. I was moved to tears, and knelt in prayer until I calmed, before heading below to the crypt, cafe, and gift shop, to take a break.

Replenished, I walked up to the Museum of London. It’s a relatively short walk, though right at the site I got confused about where to go to get into the Museum itself. Finally, I figured out I had to go up, and that made all the difference. I found the escalator entrance that took me to the third level of the Museum, which built around the remnants of ancient city walls.

Inside, I wandered through exhibits that focused on the history of the city from its earliest roots. They feature artifacts from every period available, from the Neolithic to Roman, from Medieval to Victorian, and from Industrial to the present day. I think my favorite was the Victorian walk, set up to appear like a small neighborhood in Victorian London. I also enjoyed the current exhibition on women’s suffrage in London.

Finally, I wandered out along the old city wall path to get to Moorgate, the tube station that took me back to the train station for my left luggage. Utterly exhausted at this point, I opted not to take tube and train back out to Heathrow (near which I had hotel reservations) and chose instead to take the more expensive but less stressful taxi option. My driver was pleasant and the drive out went smoothly. Our route took us past the William Hogarth House and Chiswick Gardens, which I earmarked for my next trip.

Getting around: I chose to use public transportation for most of my trip. It’s relatively inexpensive (I spent about $50 on tube and bus fares over two weeks) and easy to figure out. Put your walking feet on, though. And if you have mobility issues, be aware that not all tube stations have handicapped accessibility. I took a lot of stairs, and that did take a toll on my aging knees. Still, it was overall a great experience.

Last Day in Manchester: Museum Of Science And Industry and Castlefield

For my last full day in Manchester, I decided to head to the Museum of Science and Industry, a museum that grew around the oldest train station in the world.

The 1830 station is currently closed for refurbishment and exhibition installation, so that was a bit disappointing. However, to make up for that lack, the museum currently houses Stephenson’s Rocket, the engine that won the Rainhill trials to become the model for the train engines that would service the brand new Liverpool-Manchester trainline.

It’s the kind of item that has something of a folk status in Manchester, so the crowds around the engine for each of the six presentation talks given about it during the day were relatively thick. We learned that the engine, once yellow, had gone black with age, and we learned about the missing bits that had been repurposed into other train engines.

Beyond the Rocket, however, I found a lot more to appreciate about the museum. An entire section deals with the history of the textile industry in Manchester, and focuses on the process, equipment, and social issues surrounding the incredibly fast increase in population as workers flooded to Manchester for jobs at the turn of the 19th century. There’s also an area full of fun experiments and activities for children to try.

Other exhibits include the first programmable computer, built by two Manchester scientists, a Power Hall full of the machinery designed to create and get power to other machinery as part of the Industrial Revolution, and a look at the 1830 warehouse, across the tracks from the 1830 train station, that remains the oldest in Manchester.

The Air and Space Hall, across the street and affiliated with the Museum, also was closed for repair. But as I wandered away, I found a section of the city that I’d hoped to see and sort of forgotten: Castlefield.

The reconstructed North Gate of the old Roman fort faces a small square that includes a weathered foundation reconstruction of original Roman village. I wandered around those foundations, took pictures of blooming tulips and of the Gate, and continued my wandering.

Manchester will be a place I return. The warmth of the people, the rich history of the area, and the excellent access to city amenities make it an ideal destination. I look forward to bringing my own children some day.

Day 5 in Manchester: Chetham Library, Manchester Cathedral, and Pub Lunch

Saturday in Manchester brought tickets to a walking tour of the oldest public and free English-speaking library in the world: Chetham Library.

The original complex was built in 1420 to form a collegiate church in Manchester, and thus, it has been part of an institution of learning for that long. The facilities themselves are medieval–part of what drew me there–but the library itself made my happy little bibliophile heart hum. Rows and rows of books enclosed by glass covers, all under the medieval timbered room, beckon all “scholars and all others afflicted” to visit, read, and study.

That line, “scholars and all others afflicted,” spoken by our guide Jonathan Schofield (who sounded as though the phrase was in quotes for him, too) struck me as a phrase that characterizes scholarship as madness, which, fair enough. The stools in the library, adorned with a carved letter “S” in each seat, paid homage to the idea of “scholar” and were, Schofield assured us, original to the library. Also original? A collection of chained books so valuable at their donation in 1655 that scholars were required to read them in place.

Our tour of the medieval buildings culminated in the library’s reading room, which played host once to such notable minds as Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Disraeli, Fredrich Engels and Karl Marx, the latter two of whom spent most of their time in an alcove now marked as the site of their study. The reading room itself was likely the bedchamber of John Dee, who served as the Warden (or Headmaster or Director) Of Chetham from 1595 to 1605. Dee, of course, is well known for his occult scholarship and advice to Elizabeth I.

I thoroughly enjoyed the tour, and I took numerous pictures.

After the tour, Eddie and I went for pub lunch at Old Wellington, a nearby pub that claims the honor of oldest building in Manchester. It existed as early as 1552. We sat for lunch on the second floor, overlooking a courtyard packed with people enjoying a pint and sunshine.

They’re famous for pies, apparently, and so that’s what I got for lunch. Mine was a ham, chicken, and cheese pie in a short crust with puff pastry topper, served with mashed potatoes, gravy, and steamed veggies. Service was quick, food was delicious, and the ambience warm and social.

After lunch, we wandered over the courtyard to the Cathedral. We spotted actress Sophie Thompson in the courtyard, and she graciously held the door for us as we all went through. We left her to her business, but we did do some quiet fan-girling after the fact. Ms. Thompson currently stars on the British television program Coronation Street, filmed in Manchester.

The Cathedral was beautiful. It was bombed in World War II, and lovingly restored. Patrons over the years have donated funds to restore many of the stained glass windows, and a recent fundraising campaign also led to the installation of a lovely new organ, which was being played while we were there.

We wrapped up our day by wandering down Deansgate to the John Rylands Library again, this time to see the just-opened Peterloo Massacre exhibit therein. Staff did a marvelous job with the documents and other materials they displayed to tell that story, including original handwritten and printed accounts of the day and its aftermath. I highly recommend a visit.

Last day in Manchester, coming up.