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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Market Harborough and environs

Barbara and I are in England right now, visiting our Dorchester friend Ardis, whose company has sent her to Market Harborough for a period of over a year. She volunteered to be our kind chauffeur, so we don’t have to cope with driving on the wrong side of the road. So far we’ve gone to Cambridge (see previous post), Burghley House, and Rockingham Castle (see below).

Ardis characterizes Market Harborough as the Wellesley of England — an apt description, enhanced by a feature that Wellesley doesn’t have: the Grand Union Canal. Ardis lives right at a marina on the canal, so she took us and five of her English friends on a day-long leisurely voyage in a narrowboat along a bit of the canal. In order to fit into the locks, these boats are only seven feet wide, although some are as much as 72 feet long! (We rented a 28-footer.) The reason that I say “leisurely” and “a bit” is that the boat moves very slowly; we were able to get off periodically and walk alongside on the towpath, easily keepii=ng up with the boat. We went as far as the fascinating Foxton Locks, where the change in canal level is so dramatic that ten consecutive locks are necessary. I wore my map jacket, which engendered a lot of interest among random passersby, including a man from India who was excited to find that his home city of Thiruvananthapuram was right there in the middle of my back. (Don’t ask me to pronounce it.)

Unlike Wellesley, Market Harborough also has about a dozen charity shops where one can buy used items cheap, and all for a good cause: Oxfam, Cancer Research, etc.; I suppose that’s because the regular prices in England are about double what they are in the U.S. these days.

Burghley House was well worth the journey. This unassuming country house features over a hundred rooms and a castle-like appearance. Most of what we saw dated from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, so we were startled to see a photo there that was shot in Swampscott, Massachusetts, in 1927. It turned out that a relatively recent Burghley — David Cecil — won the 400-meter hurdles at the 1928 Olympics, and the photo showed him at a track meet the previous year in which he competed for Cambridge against Oxford, Harvard, and Yale. One of the characters in Chariots of Fire was based on Lord Burghley.

Market Harborough is in the Midlands, a quick one-hour train trip from London. Everywhere you look there are sheep, rolling hills, more sheep, and more rolling hills — along with a surprising wind farm at one point. On the outskirts of Market Harborough we visited Rockingham Castle. It boggles the mind that this building was actually the work of William the Conqueror, and is a private home today! Here in the U.S. a hundred-year-old house is considered old. The place was packed with tourists, including many families with kids. Some of the kids were a bit confused by the introductory video — which included simulated newscasts from 1066, the British Civil War, and other important events — and by the wax figures that represented a prisoner and a kitchen worker.

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