"We don't see things as they are,
we see them as we are."
~ Anais Nin
"Spirit says you will take peyote tonight." This was the message from the medicine cards to a Tarahumara friend of mine many years ago. She was an adult and I was a kid in high school. Our unplanned afternoon conversation carried us through the evening and into the early hours of the morning, baring our souls and covering topics even the most inspired artist could not have predicted. The meaning of the card was clear. Although we had indulged in no mind-altering substances, we might as well have. We had gone on a journey together.
People have always been central to my travel experiences. I had dreamt of traveling to Egypt for ages. When I finally experienced the pyramids, the Temple of Hatshepsut, King Tut's tomb, and Abu Simbel, it was satisfying on a soul level to have accomplished a goal. What made it touching and memorable, though, were the individuals with whom I connected, however briefly, while there. The same thing happened recently in Nottingham. It's so fresh that it's still resonating when I wake up in the morning, sip tea, or sit in front of my computer.
(Click on any photo for a larger and clearer version.)
Working together with strangers comes naturally on the canals.
First of all, there were the people I originally traveled to meet: Unitarians. My wee church here in Cork asked for a volunteer to represent us at the annual meeting. Since travel and spirituality are two of my favorite things in the whole world, I said I'd go. I was concerned that I'd be out of place among the crowd, as I suspected many of them would be more conservative or Christian-centric than I am. Differences are fine, and I've never known a more respectful bunch of folks, but sometimes swimming upstream can be exhausting. I needn't have worried.
Every talk had elements of humor and warmth that transcended the boundaries of dogma. When the conference concluded on Sunday afternoon, I left feeling as if I'd been given a glass of warm milk and a hug big enough to last the rest of the month. How people managed to do that while remaining so very English in their demeanor is still something I'm trying to unravel. Heart shines through, I guess.
My next stop was the Sawley Marina, where I was staying on a canalboat for the night, before setting out the next day to take in the waterways and countryside. Vicki and Max took very good care of me, as did the rest of the staff. A cynical, or perhaps realistic, part of me realizes that their behavior might have been affected by the fact that I was there to promote the business. I don't think that accounts for everything. They just seemed like genuinely decent people. I wish I could have stayed longer, not just for more boat time, but to continue our lovely conversations and share the amazing corner of the world that narrowboat life occupies. I will write more about this, but for now let me just say, I will travel this way again. That's not a flippant statement; it's a serious call that needs to be answered.
Once I moved to the city proper, many activities were planned in quick succession. I visited Sherwood Forest with guide Chris Slade, arranged, as most activities on this trip were, by the helpful folks at Experience Nottinghamshire. I also took in the Galleries of Justice and the City of Caves, stayed at the Lace Market Hotel, ventured out to the Attenborough Nature Reserve, and indulged in some local dining experiences. (There will be more on all of these at some point.) The people were, unsurprisingly, the part that left the biggest positive impression on me. Nearly everyone I met was polite and helpful, leaving me with a feeling that not only my custom, but my person, mattered to them. But by far my favorite part of the city-based portion of my adventure was the day I spent with Robin Hood.
Robin Hood next to Robin Hood.
Robin Hood is also known as Ezekial Bone, who runs "bespoke heritage tours" of Nottingham. He has another name, his real name, but even though he's well known in the area, I feel like I'd be betraying a trust by posting it here. He gave me his blessing to do so if I saw fit, and it's easy enough to find online, but the characters are part of the magic and I want to preserve that.
Now before you go thinking that I've fallen victim to stagecraft and sleight of hand, let me back up a bit. Before setting off on a new adventure, I do my best to reach out on social media to the organizations and people I'll be working with when boots are on the ground. Naturally I was excited about the trip and all the wonderful activities that were planned. I tweeted about going on the Robin Hood tour, and had some nice exchanges with Jamie, the owner of the canalboat operation, too. I retweeted and was retweeted by the tourism board. Had some chats with other people in the Nottingham area, as well. And then there was Mr. Bone.
True to character, he addressed me as "traveller" and mentioned that we'd soon be quaffing ales together. I laughed and tweeted something about Terry Pratchett's definition of quaffing ("Quaffing is like drinking, but you spill more."). Much to my surprise, the response, though playful, was a jab at Sir Terry. I was flummoxed as to how anyone could think of Terry Pratchett as something other than a complete and utter genius. More tweets ensued.
— TourAbsurd (@TourAbsurd) April 9, 2013
He responded with contrition and the matter was laid to rest for the day. I think he genuinely felt bad, which was a shame, because it was all in good fun. But I wondered how he'd be in person. Was I going to be annoyed by larger-than-life buffoonery and grandstanding or would he be one of the actors who has the ability to "turn it off", as it were? I've already told you that this tour was one of the best parts of my trip, so, no, I was not annoyed. But the answer to the second question – could he turn it off? – is a bit more complex.
The man behind Ezekial Bone has been doing historical re-enactment and theater for most of his adult life. He's worked with tourism boards, historical trusts, and community organizations. He's also spent 15 years researching the tales of Robin Hood and takes pride in providing accurate information as well as entertainment. How much you get of either depends on what you're looking for. School children who are lucky enough to get a visit from Robin Hood in their classroom tend to get more of the latter. Family groups of mixed interest levels will get a performance tailored to attention span and responsiveness. And for those of us who enjoy entertainment but have a strong preference for authenticity and human connection, well, that's there, too.
Friar Tuck and Little John share a contemplative moment outside Nottingham Castle.
Without getting too parenthetical, I want to explain why I even had a concern about becoming annoyed. Many, many years ago I worked in theater. I performed at both the Northern and Southern Renaissance Pleasure Faires in California doing improv comedy, as well as musical theater at other venues, once getting as fancy as the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera. As much as I utterly adored being onstage – especially singing – I left.
Some of it was situational (college), but some of it was because theater in California is a competitive, insecure way to go. I didn't like seeking approval from the masses and only feeling successful if I delivered a punchline well. These days I find it difficult to be around that kind of neediness from the audience side. And now, with travel, making genuine connections matters much more.
On the flip side, I have recently begun to question my sense of self-consciousness and shame. I have found myself on more than one occasion longing for the freedom of expression that came so naturally to me back in my theater days. Not only was I not self-conscious, I was gloriously free from caring what anyone outside of an audience thought of me. …So it was all me and my mental detritus (thank you, Anais Nin) that led me to look a bit askance at this character who had no trouble whatsoever proclaiming that he wasn't merely playing Robin Hood, he WAS Robin Hood.
The Major Oak, alleged home to Robin Hood and his Merry Men. No gurlls aloud!
Our appointment was for 10:30 outside a pub in the center (or "centre", more appropriately). It was closer to my hotel than I realized, so I waited outside enjoying the fresh air. Within a few moments Mr. Bone, as Robin Hood, appeared. He looked at me, I looked at him. It was obvious to me that he was the one I was meeting; not so obvious the other way around. Except for the fact that I was staring right at him and holding a camera.
"You're early," he said with a grin.
"So are you," I replied cheekily.
I suspect he'd been counting on a few moments of solitude before having to face his public. He rallied and accompanied me inside, telling me he had to fix his hair. I nodded, deadpan. He returned a few minutes later and began chatting. He may have caught me looking at his coiffure.
"I didn't really have to fix my hair, you know."
I laughed. Yes, but I was willing to play along. And despite my concerns, I liked this man.
Err… how do you erase rock?
We walked around the Lace Market area, stopping outside the Galleries of Justice, in use as a courthouse until 1985. Interesting tales of the area include a profile of a bloodthirsty public that enjoyed hangings, over-capacity crowds at such events that resulted in trampling deaths, and houses rented out to wealthy gentlemen specifically because of the view afforded of the executions. Said displays were meant to be deterrents to potential criminals, but instead acted primarily as entertainment. This eventually led to a relocation of the gallows to the more private area of the men's exercise yard in the prison portion of the building. There was also a spelling error, still visible today, of the world "gaol" carved into the stone.
There were moments of Robin Hood's (for although he was Ezekial Bone and the man behind Ezekial Bone, he was also Robin Hood) presentation that were clearly standard bits, written and presented for maximum entertainment value. Broad grins, expansive gestures, and fill-in-the-blank sentences inviting audience participation served dramatic purpose, and I could not help but smile in appreciation. And, as a coal fire heats a cauldron, a passion for history and truth bubbled through.
Old Angel Inn YOUR FACE!
He was clearly a well known character (the man, not just the historical figure) around town, with many a greeting exchanged as we walked about. If anyone should slip up and call him by his civilian name, he reminded them that he was, in fact, Robin Hood. Ahem.
As we passed the Old Angel Inn, once the last stop of the condemned for a final quaff before meeting the hangman, we encountered the manager, Sean. The inn is now a well-regarded venue for live rock music. (Sean, as the guitarist for The Varukers, a punk band formed in 1979, is a bit of a local legend.) He invited us to stop by later in the evening for the show. Members of White Zombie were reported to be in attendance, and I did consider it, but dinner plans took priority.
Several things were going on as we walked. I observed my guide and enjoyed the information presented – some of it Robin-Hood-o-centric, some of it general Nottingham-ish knowledge – and also observed how I felt walking around with a fellow in costume. I watched members of the public respond to his presence in differing ways and thought to myself that, despite being used to it, catching the attention of people not on the tour would probably have made me cringe in self-consciousness. It's one thing to have a large group of people following you around, but quite another to have a single audience member. And yet another part of me wanted to look some of those people in the eye and say, "That's right, bitches! I'm with Robin Hood. Suck it!" (Hahaha! I just cracked myself up there.)
Nottingham Castle: abandon £5.50, all ye who enter here.
I have a hard time separating my analytical mind from every day goings on. On top of that, philosophy and spirituality, as well as a particular fondness for iconoclasm and inappropriate humor, are nearly always present. So while we walked and talked, my new age-y-ish views leaked out from time to time, even in response to lighthearted questions designed to engage a cheerful tourist. *shrug* That's how I roll.
When the presentations about the former size of Sherwood Forest, the hundreds of years of legends that have been rolled up into the contemporary view of Robin Hood, and the economic impact of Nottingham being the world center of lace making during the Victorian era concluded, we stopped at Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem. It has a fantastic ambiance, with the size and random shapes of the rooms adding to the feel. It's carved into the base of the sandstone escarpment upon which sits the site of Nottingham Castle, now home to a ducal mansion built in the 1600's. Although it's fun to call it the oldest inn in England, it likely started out as a storage place for beer rather than a proper pub. Still, there's a bit of fun in stating I Was There.
Usually the Robin Hood tours conclude here, most likely with a hail and well met to the barkeep, followed by a pint, and ending with a cheerful wave as the outlaw of Sherwood Forest disappears into the mists. Due to circumstances being a bit different this day, I had some extra time with the mythical personage. We both ordered beverages suitable for quaffing and had a few nibbles to feed the conversation. I had an appointment at the Galleries of Justice (for a tour, not for committing a crime; not yet, that is), but until my departure time we chatted about all manner of things, personal and professional. I had a dinner and restaurant review scheduled that night and invited Mr. Bone to join me. He frowned and pondered a bit, having to cancel previously made plans to accommodate, but said yes.
Not quite as musical as 24601.
After my tours of both the Galleries of Justice – where you are automatically guilty of a crime – and the City of Caves, I indulged in a nice, hot bath. I don't have a tub in my apartment in Ireland, so when I'm traveling I do try to take advantage. When Mr. Bone met me in the lobby of the hotel and asked how my afternoon had been, I joyously proclaimed, "I took a bath!"
"Uhh… right. I'd really like to know what you thought of the two tours."
Oh, right. Business talk. Right. To be fair, for me, the hotel and its facilities fell within the boundary of business talk. Didn't occur to me until later that discussing my bathing activities might come across as a bit off sides. Oh, well, what can you do?
Looks nice enough. I stress "looks"… Sigh.
The restaurant was quite near to the hotel and had just launched their new spring menu that day. I so wanted it to be fabulous, I really did. Alas, it was not to be. Out of the 6 dishes presented, only one actually tasted as good as it looked. The others were, mostly, scenic but with taste ranging from mediocre to bloody awful. It pains me that I am meant to write a review of the place. Saying nice and genuine things is always my preference. But if I must decide between the two, genuine will prevail.
Still, that being said, the company and the conversation made up for quite a lot. Topics covered ranged from the joys and agonies of working as an entrepreneur to philosophy (naturally) to relationships to theater. And because I am both analytical and advice-prone, my opinions featured greatly.
I learned the term "Dutch uncle" from some of my fellow travel bloggers. Wikipedia defines it thusly: "Dutch uncle is a term for a person who issues frank, harsh, and severe comments and criticism to educate, encourage, or admonish someone. Thus, a 'Dutch uncle' is a person who is rather the reverse of what is normally thought of as avuncular or uncle-like (which would be indulgent and permissive)." I know that in my pursuit of truth and encouragement, I can be a bit of a pain in the ass and may fit the aforementioned description. There were a few times when I had to check in with Mr. Bone to make sure I was not treading on sacred ground. In one instance I was, and we gently glided around the topic. Other subjects, though decidedly revealing, were fair game.
The only item besides my Pinot Grigio that lived up to appearance and expectation.
Several times throughout the conversation Mr. Bone indicated that he thought this meeting of ours was serendipitous and was happening at an interesting personal crossroads. Some of my hypotheses and suggestions were things he'd heard from other friends, others appeared to be new ideas. I couldn't put my finger on it at the time, but I had a similar feeling about meeting him at a rather singular time in my life. I had recently been spending a lot of time thinking about what led me from being a cheerful, carefree thespian to such a harsh self-critic. I admire people who live their passion and frequently encourage the pursuit of such in friends and strangers alike. I truly believe that if you commit yourself to a goal – and really feel it, body and soul – the universe will rearrange itself to make your dreams happen.
I have many stereotypes in my mind of what Americans and Brits are like. I do enjoy breaking them down and finding examples that disprove or at least inform my assessments in a more educated way. One image of Americans that frequently comes to mind is that of a large, friendly dog, something like a Golden Retriever. If you are willing to play ball with us, we'll happily call you friend and invite you to our family reunions. This is doubly true of Californians. Some of this is likely based on the particular blend of hot/cold climate culture characteristics found in our make up. For west coasters like myself, there's also an element of the brash and pragmatic pioneer.
British folks, especially the English, are often portrayed as uptight and repressed, only able to open up and express emotions after several pints. I know this is not strictly true, as a number of my friends are English and are some of the most honest, warm, and caring people I know. And all this quite without pints. (My dad, though now a US citizen, was born in England; despite still using terms like "petrol", he also hardly fits the profile.) And yet there are still cultural barriers that an outsider may never fully grok.
Sandstone foundations of Nottingham. …See what I did there?
All of this is to explain that, despite a night of sharing, I'm not sure Mr. Bone and I are friends. I feel, as with my Tarahumara friend many years ago, spirit did figuratively take peyote that night. I am confident that had I had more time in Nottingham, we would have had several more hours of things to say. Was it simply a Lost in Translation moment? Possibly. Being stereotypically American in this case, I'd happily call him friend, but he's "a private person" (his words) and seemed happy to leave our night of philosophy and soul delving as a discrete event. There is a small chance that he'll be island hopping and will land briefly in Ireland this year. I hope he will swing through Cork so we can quaff tea and feast on scones.
In any case, it left a deep impression on me and will now forever be associated with my first visit to Nottingham. There are many, many amazing and beautiful things to do and see in Nottinghamshire, but as always, it's people that make a place come alive. If you do have the pleasure of meeting Ezekial Bone, whether as Robin Hood or one of his other characters, I am sure you will enjoy the tour. I suspect it will be one of your fondest memories of the place.
All tours and activities were arranged by Experience Nottinghamshire, but opinions are very much my own.
If you'd like to partake of a regularly scheduled Nottingham tour or request a custom arrangement with Ezekial Bone,
you can contact him through his website: http://www.ezekialbone.com/