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We went to England in late June expecting fogs and rain, but it was cool and clear most days, seldom getting above 70 degrees. We had not considered how deep into the evening the light would persist. Northern England, where we stayed in the tiny village of Newby in the beautiful Lake District, is farther north than all of the U.S. except Alaska, and the light comes early and stays late.

On a walk in the Lake District

On a walk in the Lake District

We wore long pants and layers and carried umbrellas that were seldom used. The narrow country lanes were largely empty of traffic and we walked between hedgerows and used public footpaths across neat fields of sheep and cows. Sometimes we would see a farmer far away on a red tractor or mowing his field of hay. There were wooden steps to climb over gates and we walked between villages, each one with its ancient church and historic pub. Albion, the original name for the British Isles, was all around us in the lingering daylight.

The sun rose early, well before 5 a.m., but we dithered around the cottage, making tea and English breakfast, fried eggs and sausages, thick bacon, toast, often with beans. Dairy Cottage was neat and highly efficient. Every outlet had its own breaker and the washer and dryer were in one small package. The girls slept in twin beds under a skylight and we had a larger room with a double bed. Our window looked out on the neighboring dairy farm, though we were on one of the short main streets of Newby.

Window seat at Dairy Cottage looks out on a working farm

Window seat at Dairy Cottage looks out on a working farm

One morning we took a short drive and visited the cottage where William Wordsworth lived with his wife and sister Dorothy. Dove Cottage was small and dark, though comfortable enough. He discovered the cottage, a former inn, on a walking tour with his pal and Lyrical Ballads collaborator Samuel Taylor Coleridge. It looked down on Grasmere Lake and off to the hills. He and Dorothy moved in to the cottage and planted a garden, and a few years later, Wordsworth married Mary Hutchinson and filled the cottage “edgewise” with children and notable guests, like Ivanhoe author Sir Walter Scott and the Opium Eater Thomas De Quincey. We sat on the bench on the hillside behind the cottage where Wordsworth composed some of the most beautiful poems in the English language and his sister worked at her journal that details the life of a place and the poets who lived and visited there.

Grasmere Lake

Grasmere Lake

We walked down the road to the lake and circled it on a quiet path near the shore. Grasmere is touristy, but in an old fashioned, pleasant enough way. We bought sandwiches made of local cheeses and chutney from a small shop, and ate in a park across the road. All during our trip we bought interesting sandwiches or packed them ourselves and often ate our lunch outdoors. Many afternoons we stopped in tea shops for a light meal and pots of tea, and for the first time I understood why the British are so fanatical about tea. Later, in London, we visited the original Twinings tea company store, a long, narrow shop in the old City with shelf upon shelf of boxed teas, with a sign out front that gave its founding as 1706. Maybe Samuel Johnson, whose house was a few blocks away, strolled in to buy his tea while Boswell hung at his elbow, jotting down his witticisms.

Tea shop outside the gates of Warwick Castle

Tea shop outside the gates of Warwick Castle

Afternoon tea

Afternoon tea

We spent a week at Dairy Cottage, exploring the Lake District, with a daytrip north by rail to Edinburgh, Scotland, where we wandered through the old alleys near the Castle and visited the National Gallery and the Library of Scotland. Then we headed for London, with an interesting stop along the way.

The author waits for a train in Edinburgh station

The author waits for a train in Edinburgh station

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This summer we are planning our trip to England. In some ways we have been planning it since our daughters were old enough to read and fell in love with all the books that take place there. First it was the Harry Potter books. Then they moved on to Jane Austen. Lately we have been steeped in the time travel novels of Connie Willis about the Blitz, the German air raids on London in World War Two.

I’ve read and enjoyed those authors as well, but my favorite novel about England is The Good Companions, the story of a troupe of traveling entertainers between the world wars, as they crisscross the English countryside having romance and adventures. It is a tremendously entertaining picaresque, middle-brow novel by J.B. Priestley, a popular London playwright and novelist of the mid-twentieth century who is not often read anymore.

Then we’ve also been listening in the car to a series of lectures on CD called “London: A Short History of the Greatest City in the Western World,” which at 24 lectures is not exactly short, but it is fascinating. We may not be able to navigate the underground, but we should be pretty up on the Great Plague of 1665.

We have booked seats on the Irish airlines Aer Lingus and will be touching down for a few hours at Shannon airport going and coming, so I will be able to step outside and breathe the air where James Joyce and William Butler Yeats forged the uncreated conscience of their race. When we first booked the flight it looked like we would have a day to wander around Dublin, like Joyce’s hero in Ulysses, but the agent called back to say that flight was full. Now we will probably spend the time buying souvenirs in the airport gift shop.
We’re going to pick up a rental car at Heathrow and drive across England to the Lake District, where Wordsworth and Coleridge wandered the fields and hills, composing Lyrical Ballads (1798) in their heads, or so I imagine. Before we do that, I will have to practice driving around the car park with the steering wheel on the wrong side and a gear shifter in my left hand. Extra car insurance might be in order.

We have rented a little cottage in the Lake District for a week –”where peace comes dropping slow” as Yeats once wrote about another quiet place in another country. We haven’t given a lot of planning to this part of the trip, mostly hiking and sightseeing and maybe a day trip by train to Scotland. It has been a busy year, and I wouldn’t mind a little peace before the next part.
Then we take our time driving back across England to what is advertised as a quiet flat in North London. We will be there for a week, mostly going to things that are free, like the museums and the street markets. We will definitely take the river cruise on the Thames, which comes highly recommended, and visit the Charles Dickens Museum, which was once the author’s home. I’ve lived in three or four biographies of Dickens. In fact, all of my family has lived in England for most of our lives, in a literary way. We are just going home for a visit.

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The Thanksgiving Day newspaper landed on the lawn, causing small seismic tremors with its load of advertising inserts. Thick colored booklets from all of the major retailers spread out on the dining room table, advertising sales that would begin in the early evening and run through the night. The black ink of Friday seeped into the calendar page of Thursday, like Marley’s ghost dragging its chain of debt.

When I was a boy in south Florida, I spent each October and November poring over the Sears Christmas catalog with my brother and sister. We would lie on the floor of the old stone house hidden among fruit trees, with our heads together, skipping quickly past the clothing ads and into the bright colored toy section. There were the treasures I longed for, double holstered cap guns, space stations, baseball gloves, and plastic castles with one hundred knights on horseback, all arranged to capture a boy’s imagination. It was an early training in consumerism.

So, I thumbed through every page of every newspaper catalog Thanksgiving morning, but nothing stirred my imagination. I did not see myself in the skinny jeans or wearing the noise cancelling headphones or tapping the screen of the iPad. I did not want to wait in the late hours of the evening at the door of a big bright store with a crowd of other well-trained consumers. But I was not above it all – no, I wanted my Black Friday, too.

That morning my family got up in shifts based on age, first me, then my wife, then much later the older daughter, followed, after much coaxing, by her teenage sister. By this time, Black Friday had been ongoing for about nine hours. We thought downtown State College, with the students gone for the holiday, would be less hectic, and we were not disappointed. The sidewalks were mostly uncluttered and the shoppers unhurried. Families stopped to look in windows, nobody pushed or cursed. The clerks were unharried.

We ate a leisurely breakfast at the Waffle Shop across from campus, then wandered for an hour among the shops on College Avenue. There were many things I admired, but none that I longed for. We all seemed on the same wavelength, if I read my wife and daughters right. This year we are hoping to save toward a special trip in the future, and the British Isles seem more glistening than ear rings. We bought a few stocking stuffers and thought of England.

My mother always liked to imagine she would take her extended family on a trip to England some day. She wanted to walk among those places she had read about in novels and poetry, the Lake Country of the Romantic poets, the London streets of Dickens, Walter Scott’s misty hills. The years came and went, and she grew too old to climb the hills. It was a sad day when she told us we would have to go on our own without her. But England would remain, green and perfect in her imagination.

We ended the day, as we often do, in the library. There the gifts were all on the shelves, and we plucked them like gold apples, eager and greedy. They were gifts of the imagination for this alternative Black Friday, and we sat in the warm library and read for hours.

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