Letter from Helmsley
If you're ever able to spend one or two weeks in London, "flower of cities" since William Dunbar dubbed it that in the Middle Ages, then consider yourself extremely fortunate. An equally great pleasure may be found in experiencing a heady city-country contrast—say, fleeing central London and the Euston-Road traffic snarl one sunny morning and driving immediately northward for half a day to Yorkshire. Stop by York to experience the magnificent Minster, if you must (and you should), but to achieve the full effect, drive on to reach the ribbon-like two-lane roads and find your way to a little Yorkshire village. You can do no better than Helmsley, fifteen or so miles from York. Here you will be able to take the sweetest stock of your non-urban surroundings.
Let me say from the outset that it is important, once in an English village after a stint in the city, to resist the natural impulse to dismiss all of London out of hand, and everything you have been so deeply enjoying there for the past few days. After a while, it is true, cities can begin to wear down their visitors. A mere thread of cultural interest or spark of curiosity will translate in a place like London into obligatory activity, happy drudgery as you plan the day's route from this landmark to that church, to this lovely park or square, and on to that theater venue in the evening, and maybe a punk-rock lunch in Camden Town or Indian feast at Brick Lane thrown in somewhere.
No, let London be what it so clearly is—a pulsing museum of English history and culture as large as the city itself is large, and simultaneously a teeming cosmopolis today. A friend who works in London recently told me that the old cockney accents are passing away, being replaced by a global fusion of imported words and accents that all London youth increasingly speak, no matter birthplace, neighborhood, or social background. London is one of the noblest illustrations of the millennia-long experiment that is urban existence. I as much as any visitor aspire to The Knowledge—the taxi driver's codified awareness of London's seemingly infinite streets, squares, mews, and closes.
That said, after enjoying the endless web of London roads and taking in the city's innumerable sites, there was something very satisfying about pacing off, in fifteen minutes or so, the few streets of Helmsley: its town center, with a World War I memorial, quaint shops, and space often filled with market stalls, and onto the quickly reached periphery, lined with stone and brick homes, most sporting little summer gardens meant to look as if no effort were involved in their creation. North or south, the English make an art of this. A little farther along, we encountered a tiny elementary school with the sort of playground equipment usually found in family driveways, and tires of various sizes dotting the football pitch—an obstacle course, maybe? My daughter was so quickly enchanted with the environs that she began to imagine what student life in such a small school would be like. My son, on the other hand, when he learned that English children were still in school in early summer, said simply, "Good thing I don't live here." We also happened upon a lovely playing field up the hill a bit, like a resting green sentinel for the village below. The find of this first night was a zip line, and a well-designed, swift, daring zip line at that. We saw a little building nearby, which was, as a local soon informed us, an indoor pool—a popular place, I imagined, during a bleak northern England winter.
The next morning we hiked the three miles along Cleveland Way to Rievaulx Abbey, or what remains of this Cistercian settlement long ago inspired by the great heart of St Bernard and his fellow monks at Clairvaux, and Citeaux before that. The ruins there are some of the most picturesque in England, and if you've ever read anything about the country's monastic heritage or the Dissolution of the great religious houses under Henry VIII, then you've probably seen an image of the solitary stone foundations and haunting fragments of nave or transept at Rievaulx. The sight reminded me of Jane Austen's cheeky assessment of Henry VIII in her short history of England: "nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses & leaving them to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general." This must have been his main motivation in abolishing the monasteries, she continues archly, since he showed no signs of true religion himself.
The community's first monks, novices, and lay brothers showed both practical smarts and an appreciation of natural beauty when they planted their little holy community at this particular spot in the Rye valley, with surrounding hills defending against the weather, and pasturelands and stream conveniently nearby, just below. We think of these Cistercians as contemplatives, sometimes mystically inclined, and that is correct, but the reputation makes it easy to forget how active they were in the wool trade, how busy they were with iron smelting, glass blowing, and the tanning of leather. They read the Old Testament allegorically with literally dirty, toughened hands.