Getting Out

19 03 2009

[You can listen to this episode here, or alternatively download it as a podcast from iTunes – search ‘James Townsend’ in the iTunes Store.]

The late, great broadcaster Alistair Cooke – a man whose influence in these letters is, I hope, apparent – once passed on to his listeners a very sage piece of advice. Cooke broadcast a ten minute Letter From America on the BBC every Sunday from 1946 to 2004. Towards the end of his career he explained why one should never start a talk by promising a story, or some suddenly-remembered anecdote.

His reason? That in the time between recording and broadcast the world might see some great tragedy – a terrorist attack or natural disaster – and consequently the moment of humour or whimsical interruption would be “jarring at best. At worst it would be tasteless.”

Well, it so happens that this week I am speaking to you live, so unless anything happens in the next ten minutes, or you are listening to the podcast, I hope that I will be able to tell you a short story without fear of causing offence.

The true blessing of both possessing a car and studying at York is the variety of opportunities to get off campus and explore the North Yorkshire countryside. There is a small gang of us third-year students who manage from time to time to organise a Sunday trip. Invariably including a hearty pub lunch, there have been a range of destinations over the past year. They include several ruined abbeys, Whitby Bay, Scarbrough, the Yorkshire Moors, a few battlefields and many things in between.

Before you accuse us of any intellectual endeavours at the weekend, let me assure you that there the content of the visits are far from high-brow. I would love to say that we spent our time in these places writing poetry about them, or sharing with each other our detailed understanding of Franciscan architecture of the Fourteenth Century. On our last visit to the ruins of Rievaulx Abbey we played hide and seek.

I suppose the reason we embark on such trips is not so much to further our cultural development. It is rather more simple than that – it’s about breaking up the routine. Now that third year is upon us, with all the associated pressure, hard work, and library-time, the currency of just a few hours outside, in an unfamiliar place is extraordinary.

One place we are determined to visit before we graduate, and an indication of the variety available in North Yorkshire, is Flamingo World. Most trips involve driving past the entrance and consequently the park has gained cult status amid the imaginative suggestions as to what it involves.

Having said how wonderful it is to get out of York, I’m also very concerned that in my three years living in the city I haven’t spent anywhere near enough time enjoying it properly. There have been many hours spent in the Minster, but that building probably justifies a letter all of itself. And I don’t mean Jorvik – the rather overpriced time-travelling experience that allows you to see, hear, touch and, unfortunately, smell the atmosphere of a Viking town. All the tourist attractions are great, but I wonder how much I’ve really got to know the city itself. Like most students here I could navigate from bar to bar with my eyes closed – and often do. But I still don’t know what any of the streets are called.

York was laid out as a city long before anybody came up with words like ‘street’, or ‘road’. Consequently intra-city navigation relies on such terms as Stonegate, Swinegate, Lendal, Bootham and Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate. I recognise the names, but couldn’t possibly tell you which one was which.

Then there are the many markets, street events and community activities, the dying remnants of which we stumble past on our way to the Evil Eye Cocktail Lounge.

A friend of mine did make a solid effort to explore the warren of snickleways that lace the city. A snickleway, for those unfamiliar with the idea, is a sort of pedestrian shortcut between buildings and they invariably provide the fastest route through York. My friend found a book on the subject, and invited his girlfriend on a romantic evening stroll through the ancient snickleways ending in some cosy restaurant for dinner.

Of course, the most observant among you will realise that a snickleway is a more elaborate word for an alley. Accordingly these things tend to be a dumping ground for rubbish, and home to a large population of rats. I never managed to elicit a report on how the evening went, and it has never been spoken of since.

Now I promised you a story earlier. I think we should be alright if I tell it to you now. A few weeks ago, a small number of fellows agreed that a trip was in order for that Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately there was no consensus on where we should go. Seemingly all the local ruined abbeys had been done, in some cases several times. Our imaginations were stumped until somebody put forward Aldborough.

‘Aldborough?’ We asked.

‘Yes, have you not heard of the Aldborough mosaics?’

I must confess that the name meant as little to me then as it must to you. Well, our companion dutifully explained to the group about the extraordinary Roman mosaics that had been uncovered at a small North Yorkshire Village called Aldborough. The pieces, he maintained, were some of the finest of their kind and had drawn a great deal of attention from around the world when first discovered. Nowadays, Alborough is under the care of English Heritage.

Well, this seemed a perfectly satisfactory destination. The good pub guide was consulted, and a nearby eatery identified for lunch. So, that was that.

Sunday morning came and unfortunately the weather left a little to be desired. In fact, my loyal Vauxhall Corsa was struggling even to wipe the windows fast enough as we trundled out of York on our way to see these marvels of ancient art.

Our first stop was Boroughbridge, where the Good Pub Guide had promised a hearty lunch for a reasonable price. Unfortunately we arrived a little late on account of a navigational error on the A59. Consequently the bar had been commandeered by the local Morris Dancing Troupe taking shelter from what had now turned into a heavy snowstorm.

Nevertheless, the dogged landlord made sure he could accommodate us, and a table was hurriedly set up in a room ‘out back’. The atmosphere was a little still, but we were grateful to be out of the fierce weather and happily consumed our Roast Beef.

The next leg of our journey was scheduled to be just a few minutes’ drive to Aldborough itself. Well, we arrived in the absolutely deserted village promptly. It is a beautiful village, with all the classic English accoutrements: a maypole, church, phone-box, pub, vicarage and seemingly little else. Had the weather not been so particularly obnoxious we would, I’m sure, have fallen in love with the place.

The one thing missing from the scene was a large English Heritage sign welcoming us to the site of the Aldborough mosaics. It was a good fifteen minutes until we found the entrance – hidden behind a tree at the top of the village. The sign on the gate proudly boasted two things: First, that this was the site of some of the finest mosaic in Europe. Second, that the site this year would open early – at the end of march. A large padlock confirmed that the site was most definitely closed.

Not to be put off, one of our number scaled the wall to our right, jumped over and encouraged us all to follow. Not wanting to miss out on experiencing these great pieces of civilised artwork I duly obliged.

We headed down the slim path as directed by the guiding arrows – our hearts beating a little faster the closer we got to the dramatic moment.

Finally, we reached the last corner. Seemingly in the middle of an otherwise non-descript copse in North Yorkshire, we were about to set eyes on a little piece of history.

I cannot tell you the exact composition of our emotions as we crouched in the rain, posing for a photograph next to the plague erected by English Heritage. Let me read you the inscription there:

“This is the site of the Aldborough mosaics, some of the finest examples of Roman artwork ever found in Northern Europe. They were moved in 1932 to the British Museum.”

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