Mornings in the Manor

 

It was all so new, a year ago, when I described the over and under and through of my commute to work, walking through a microcosm of English history. Now it passes in a blur, I’m either in my headphones listening to a podcast or buzzing by on my lovely Gazelle–the sturdy Danish bicycle that I steer over frozen cobblestones and muddy, overgrown pathways.

I was delayed this morning by a brief flurry of snow, predicated by an Easter pink and yellow sky. I don’t notice my commute much, and a lot of the culture shock has worn off. Now I hear my previous self in other Americans, going on and on about the subtle differences, the quirks, the realignment of world view, and I hope that I wasn’t that completely tedious. I probably was.

I can understand most of what people say these days, even the most York-shure, and I don’t get as many looks of utter incomprehension when I ask for eggs or butter. Verbal code-switching has become comfortable and useful, though there’s still the occasional confusion with “shop” and “store” and a few other things.

So I was in my at-least-partially-acculturated haze this morning, wheeling my bicycle over the big stone pavers of King’s Manor, when I crossed paths with one of the lovely porters. We don’t really have portersĀ in the States, they’re sort of watchmen/caretakers of the building, but not janitors or rent-a-cop security. They are constantly kicking me out of the building, as I often work until closing time–19:00 (7:00PM)–shockingly early in academia-land. But they do it with a smile, especially after I engaged on a military-esque campaign of extreme friendliness until even the most curmudgeonly porter relented.

As usual, I greeted the porter with a big smile and wave, and, code-switching without a thought, asked him if he liked the snow this morning. He returned my smile and said, in the most charming of accents:

“No, no. We never like the snow.”

Something about his cheerfully brusque response, the big old medieval walls rising around me, and the clatter of my bicycle wheels over the pavers pushed me out of my acculturation and made me notice again, back to being a stranger in a strange land. But I’m okay with that. If anything it made me happy to be reminded of how far I’ve been, how much I’ve changed, and how many adventures are yet to come.

In the Manor of Kings: a walk

It starts out among tightly-packed terraced houses that are built right up to the sidewalk. They’re all painted white on the front and I’ve learned to looked at the doors as I pass by. Red one, wooden one, blue, window on top, white–a solid wall of dwelling only punctuated by a single door and window for each house. The windows look directly into the front rooms, and sometimes you are startled by a person, standing a foot away, directly at eye level. It feels like an invasion, so I don’t look at the windows, just the doors. From the top my neighborhood looks like tangled zippers, long blocks of two-up, two-down dwellings (in America, a house is a free-standing structure; in England it just means that you have stairs and so therefore it is not a flat) that were built for workers.

My walk then takes me down a busy street that reeks of diesel fumes, and past a stately pub that was once a train station. It is red, red sandstone and brick, and would be the prize of any city on the midwestern plains in the States. Here, it is slightly shambolic and has a pub-manager-wanted sign covering the entryway. But then I climb up into the neighborhoods, and I watch a crazy mixture of concrete, asphalt, paving stones, tile, cobblestones, and blue iron furnace slag pavers that remind me of Puerto Rico pass beneath by feet.

Up and over the railway bridge. I’m just barely too short to see over the walls, but if I jump, I can get a glimpse of the fat ribbons of railways and yellow and blue trains beneath my feet. If there is a train thundering past, the whole bridge shakes a little bit. This may be why so many people seem to get sick on the bridge. It’s hard to say, but the evidence remains when I walk by in the morning.

At the other end of the bridge there is a dedicated pedestrian/cyclist lane that wends through industrial yards and parking lots and goes behind the train station, and is probably more presentable in the summertime. But at the moment it is bare, and stark, and I pass this stretch by concentrating on whatever is playing on my headphones, and looking at the red-pink painted wall that sometimes has graffiti. The courses on the wall are slightly strange, and I think that maybe the brick has been recycled, alternating courses of soft-ish rounded bricks, and crisp, smaller, squared-off bricks. I could probably find out, but I let my brain meander through the archaeological steps each time anyway.

I pass through a long, white-tiled tunnel, under the train tracks this time. I like the over and under and through of my commute, the varied terrain, weaving through the brick and steel industrial background toward the soft stone heart of the city. My walk takes me past a lot full of sturdy red Royal Mail bicycles–I occasionally see a postal worker take off, panniers fat with mail, and I am delighted every time.

I walk over the Ouse, which I always spell out (and probably pronounce) as the Oooooze, and in the wintertime it is flat and brown and disrespectful of its banks. The center of the river is at a constant, slow-motion simmer, making flat circles that blend and fade and reemerge to break the surface. When the Oooooze becomes too threatening, gates go up that block all the walkways to the center of town, and a line of pedestrians forms, boosting bags and bikes and each other over the barriers.

The walk shifts abruptly when I turn away from the river, with the precinct walls of the ruined St Mary’s Abbey rising on the right. Through the gates and into a garden with small green hills, where I walk through the broken arch of St. Mary’s. There are frost-rimed squirrels that lazily bob about, but it is usually too early for many tourists. Even a non-archaeologist would see that the area is ripe with archaeology, jagged walls coming out of the ground, bits of discarded stonework lining the gardens.

I walk alongside the museum, past a crumpled Roman tower, and up and around to the gates of King’s Manor. They’ve just redone the crest above the door and it is gilded and glorious.

And this is where I work.