Penzance, Cornwall

After an evening spent on the rails, our train finally sputters to a halt. There was nowhere else to go from here. We’ve journeyed as far away from home as we possibly could without leaving England.


This far.

Penzance is quite literally the end, the side where things are supposed to look a bit different. Perhaps news of Royal babies won’t reach the place for weeks. Being a “Northerner,” I didn’t know what to expect from this coastal town other than there should be pirates. To this end, I was definitely not disappointed.



The town is teeming with pirate memorabilia. You name it, they have it: eye patches, wooden legs, fish and chip shops called “Pirates’ Rest,” boat trips on a ship sporting the Jolly Roger…the only thing missing were the actual pirates. As far as I could tell, the only pirate to have ever called this sleepy coastal town their home, is the character of Frederic  in the comic opera The Pirates of Penzance (c 1880). That is, if you don’t count the pirates who are like those living everywhere else–illegally downloading music and films. And I doubt any of them ever demanded a grog, as they would be a mite under age.

Penzance Pirates poster

Of course, like most coastal towns in the UK, there were the ever-present smugglers who performed their duty with such aplomb that almost none of them ever escaped their veil of anonymity. Either that or the smuggling involved everyone in town (quite a possibility) and no one likes a show off, so they get second billing to the imaginary pirates of old. It’s almost as if Penzance wants you to forget its most accomplished son is an ambitious chemist who proved that diamond is made of carbon while managing to inhale nitrous oxide (laughing gas) with famous junkies like Coleridge and Southey  for “research” purposes.


Duuuude, carbon? That’s far out!

Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) is one of the most famous chemists in the world. Not only is he the owner of a name worthy of any hip hop artist, he is also purported to be the first inventor of the electric lamp, discovered chlorine, and found a distinction between sodium and potassium that I dare you to remember. Mostly, he was famous coz he knew the right people, the ladies thought him handsome and charming, and he hosted awesome parties. I would hazard a guess that it was during one of these parties that he discovered nitrous oxide’s anaesthetic qualities.


Hee hee hee… man, I can’t feel a thing! Pinch me again.

But if you didn’t already know Davy was born and schooled in Penzance, you probably wouldn’t know it even if you visited the place. Considering how famous this guy was in the 1800s, it’s a little weird that he only has an unassuming monument in front of a Lloyd’s that’s visited mostly by seagulls.

It doesn't even have his first name.

It doesn’t even have his first name.

In fact, I wouldn’t have been able to locate his place of birth if I wasn’t specifically looking for it.

Found it!

Found it!

It took me almost a week to find this spot, mostly because it’s now an oxygen health club.

I’m sure Sir Humphry would be able to explain what an oxygen health club is. He’d probably be a frequent customer (for research purposes).

I guess chemistry isn’t as popular as it was during the Enlightenment, so I can’t blame the town for its lack of a Sir Humphry museum and choosing to bombard us with imaginary pirates instead. Then again, his homies were never in awe of this man who was born into an ancient but impoverished family and spent his life pursuing fame. His former schoolmaster is quoted to state in a letter that he “could not discern the faculties by which he (Davy) was afterwards so much distinguished.”

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that even with assistants like Michael Faraday, Sir Humphry’s most known invention, the Davy Lamp, has also been proven to be no superior at saving lives of countless miners and canaries to the Geordie Lamp, invented almost at the same time by someone who could neither read nor write.

George Stephenson Northern Inventor.

George Stephenson (1741-1848)
Northern, illiterate. Invented the Geordie Lamp and  The Rocket aka the world’s first passenger train.

Ouch. Needless to say, Sir Humphry didn’t like this Geordie one bit. He sued Stephenson more than once, but lost the case in the end. For those counting, the score is Street Smarts 1, Academic Druggies 0.

Ah, well, if it’s any consolation, Penzance has nothing dedicated to its other famous child, Thandie Newton, either. And people today have actually heard of her, lol. Sir Humphrey isn’t totally abandoned by his home town, the townsfolk just prefer to remember him in the time-honored British way:

Ball’s in your court, Stephenson.


Hampton Court

I thought I’d go all techno savvy and start my research for Hampton Court by checking out what people say about it on Twitter. I was expecting to read things like, “Spending the day with the kids at Hampton Court. Henry VIII was fat.” or “Chills down my spine at Hampton Court’s Haunted Gallery. Hang in there, @CatherineHoward! #beheading”

Those comments wouldn’t have any info I didn’t know already, but it would have given me an insight to what people thought of the place. Instead, I get hit with tweets like these:

“Hampton Court! HoooOOooOOooo!”


“I spent a cute day at Hampton Court!”

I was looking for information and I got it: these guys and I should NEVER hang out. I had no idea what they were talking about! I imagine the first tweet is some kind of code that is not worth breaking, and what is a cute day? Was the sun wearing shades? Were there puppies and kittens running around the palace? Was it fluffy?



The palace is most associated with Henry VIII of England, who visited the place when his right-hand man Cardinal Wolsey owned it and in true Henry VIII style, he figured he’d have it for himself. This guy was not kidding around. Just ask his wives. Well, those who still had their heads attached to their necks.  No alimony for the Larry King of Renaissance England. He’d have fit right in today’s dog-eat-dog world.

He'd have EVERYTHING for himself, because screw you.

I’ll have EVERYTHING I want, because screw you. I’m fluffy.

This wife-murdering king wanted sons to continue his line and silence the Plantagenets who’d been biding their time since the Wars of the Roses to take over once more. The fact that Henry VIII had six wives is not really historically significant, but how he achieved this feat is. Henry led England’s break from Rome during the Reformation–a government program that really took off because, as in all successful government programs, those in charge had lots to gain from it. It swept through England in a wave of new found patriotism. The British didn’t have to throw money and swear fealty to a corrupt Church to save their souls any more. Instead, they’d have to throw their money at a corrupt king. How their nationalistic hearts must have swelled with joy.

It is said that when Henry VIII died, his coffin burst open and dogs lapped at his blood. Because that’s what you get for being such a git. But as hard as it is to believe, Hampton Court represents something bigger than the larger than life (fat), ulcerous lecher who followed convention by having extra marital affairs because no self-respecting king would be expected to have sex with just his wife for the rest of his life. Never mind that this dude had six wives and 2 of them didn’t retain custody of their heads in the divorce proceedings. A king’s supposed to be a playa’!

The palace is divided into 2 parts: One represents the reign of the Tudor dynasty, and the other the reign of King William III and Mary II. The part that Parliament played during these two eras helped shape the country as we know it today.

“Really, Ivory? How’s that?”

I’ll tell you. Don’t interrupt.

During the Tudors, the King controlled Parliament–there can be no session until the King (or Queen) calls it. By the time of William III and Mary II, you can’t be King of Anything unless Parliament says you can. As with most things, it had to do with religion.

The notion of having a personal choice for what “spirit in the sky” to blame and pray to for all the stuff you get in life, then peacefully agreeing to disagree with other people so as not to seem racist, is something we still haven’t mastered today. Except back then, instead of merely starting wars, you also have the personal risk of getting a good burning at the stake in a morbid version of a state bbq. There were no two ways about it–England needed to be free. Of all Catholics. Including the Stuart King, James II. Stories involving fake heirs and bed pans were circulated and the King was effectively fired from rule during the hip-sounding event known as the Glorious Revolution. It is “glorious,” so don’t be a spoilsport and point out that England now has a foreign king with a foreign agenda.

William III and Mary II's side of Hampton Court.

William III and Mary II’s side of Hampton Court.

Mary II is James II’s daughter, and when Parliament decided Catholicism is out, it solicited the help of Mary’s husband, William of Orange. Since it was Mary who had the claim to the throne, William was willing to go Dutch (haha) and so started England’s first and only affair with a dual monarchy. In truth, Mary had very little say in decisions that did not involve color schemes for the bedroom and kitchens. Parliament thought this would be fine since the heir, once born, would have legitimate claim to the throne and meanwhile the country will be protected by a great military leader as intent on Protestantism as Parliament is. This plan went to the dumps when Mary died less than five years after coronation and William himself died in 1702, after his horse tripped on a molehill. Glorious.

The Great Hall at Hampton Court.

The Great Hall at Hampton Court.

hampton court great hall ivory

I’m not an active Catholic, can I sit on the throne? No.

This is probably why even though law books in the UK have nothing stating the separation of church and state (in fact, technically those two are one and the same), you wouldn’t see so many people going mental when laws like gay marriage are passed. The country seems to have had enough with tossing off policies in the name of religion. What is the point of killing each other for something no one is sure about because no one can prove/disprove it? Is there really a need to die in order to prove you’re right?

I mean, seriously, doesn’t an act like that just prove the opposite of right? I’m still not sure what a “cute day” is, but I’m pretty certain it doesn’t involve this.


Lowther Castle

I fell in love last weekend.

I was in Tesco, regretting buying a pork pie and browsing brochures when the one for Lowther Castle and Gardens hit me with this:

“There are no ‘keep off the grass’ rules here… we want you to explore, follow your nose, take away your own memories… We shan’t be rewinding the clock, restoring to what might have been. Lowther is made of many layers and that’s the challenge. Finding new layers for Lowther to reinvent its future.

I gotta hand it to them. I was SO there, as sold as the pork pie I ate and still trying to block from my memory like a shameful one night stand.

My castle is your castle.

My castle is your castle. Literally.

Anyway, I think I’ll put the bathroom over here…I’m sorry, what? Entry is £8? I see. So, not literally my castle then. Thank goodness I didn’t go there hauling tiles or it would’ve been awkward. That wouldn’t have impressed my new love.

The castle’s romantic ruins is still part of the Lowther Estate, owned by the Earl of Lonsdale. Obviously, he doesn’t live here any more, but why is he giving visitors free rein? Why leave the management of the grounds to an independent charity that lets commoners do things like this?



The Lowthers are a very rich family, like, “actually-owned-the-town-of-Whitehaven” kind of rich. Their family tree can be traced right to the time of Henry II (12th century), and from the time of Edward I (1239-1307), each successive head of the family in the medieval times was knighted.

Unlike their political rivals from Hutton Hall, however,  the Lowthers allow people to ramble through the thousands of acres that comprise their estate for free (just close the gates and keep dogs on leads so they do not scare the sheep), and they do not hide their dirty laundry. There’s a possibly necrophiliac ancestor. Another one would put Michael Jackson’s shopping habits to shame, and yet another who hated the castle and all it stood for so much that only petitions from the townspeople stopped him from demolishing it.

Now, that’s what I call “layers.”

And it’s haunted!

The restless soul is purported to be the 1st Earl of Lonsdale, Sir James Lowther. And no wonder–this man was bullied as a child and grew up to be known as “Wicked Jimmy”, “The Bad Earl”, “Jemmy Grasp-all, Earl of Toadstools”  and according to Alexander Carlyle, “A madman too influential to lock up.”

"Wicked Jimmy" 1736-1802

“Wicked Jimmy”

I guess some people just give off bad vibes. That can’t be helped if just part of your inheritance is worth more than £2 million and you control 9 Parliamentary boroughs in the Northwest (the Lowther “Ninepins”), but you leave an employee like Wordsworth’s dad to die while owing him £5000 in wages.

If this happened today, I’m sure his PR advisers would be able to put some positive spin on this with some photo-ops at an orphanage or making him a patron of some charity that has a mission of saving cats from tall trees. When he fell in love with the daughter of one of his tenants, made her his mistress and kept her in high luxury for the rest of her life, they could’ve been the century’s Wills and Kate. But this was the 1700s, and Britain had an equally loony king in the form of George III. When the earl’s mistress died, he wasn’t given a pamphlet entitled “How to Move On: The Art of Letting Go.” Instead, he went from being “wicked” to just plain “weird.”

He couldn’t accept that she was dead, and his servants weren’t allowed to point out this fact when he kept her body, dressing her himself and propping her on the dinner table and kept her lying in bed until the putrefaction became unbearable. Then she remained in a glass coffin for 7 weeks before finally being buried. No word on what her family thought of this.

Hard to believe he’s not the most (in)famous Earl of Lonsdale. No, that would be Hugh, the 5th Earl. Known as “Lordy” or the “Yellow Earl,” he was a second son who never expected to inherit and so joined the travelling circus. No, really.

The Yellow Earl 1857-1944

The Yellow Earl

When he inherited the earldom, he was like a lottery winner who couldn’t handle the “success.” He had scandalous affairs with actresses like Lillie Langtry, who’d also been mistress to Edward VII. Queen Victoria told the earl he must leave the country until the scandal died down. He went to the Arctic in an expedition so gruelling over 100 guides died,  gave the Lonsdale Belt to boxing, built a hot-house to grow the yellow gardenias for his button hole, had the Lowther coat of arms reproduced every day in the stable yard with colored chalk and freshly laid sand, and he also extended the estate (flattening 20 farms in the process). But there was still some money left, so he bought cars.

Many cars.

Many cars.

He founded the Automobile Association , so we can thank him for the indecipherable route finder maps that have caused countless arguments between couples on a road trip. He lived a long life and kept spending without making money, and it makes one wonder.  In the words of the band Cake,  “How do you afford your rock n’ roll lifestyle?”

The answer, of course, was he couldn’t. He died with millions of pounds in debt which was shouldered by the 7th Earl, a D-Day veteran who was a successful businessman and engineer before he inherited the Lowther estates from his grandfather, the 6th Earl.

James Lowther, 7th Earl of Lonsdale and the key to my heart.

James Lowther, 7th Earl of Lonsdale,  1st of my heart.

Maybe fighting along peasants in the war opened his gorgeous eyes, because when he came home, he made his contempt for the castle known:

“it was a place that exemplified gross imperial decadence during a period of abject poverty”.

He  offered the castle as a gift to 3 local authorities but they all turned it down. He would have completely demolished it, but the townspeople petitioned him not to. So he removed the roof and some smaller wings, but left the silhouette intact as a romantic ruins. He didn’t forget the tenants–for some years the front courtyard was used as a pig pen, part of the gardens was used as a chicken farm and the rest were planted with timber. He had a passion for land, and he was an avid conservationist–he led the battle to prevent Ullswater from becoming a reservoir for Manchester and later he became one of the main supporters for preserving the Lake District.

He's the reason I can do things like this.

He’s the reason I can do things like this.

He died in 2006, forever depriving the world of his sexy hotness. If ghosts are real and there is one haunting the castle, it wouldn’t be his. For those interested in numbers, The Sunday Times Rich List stated his net worth was around £80 million, and he is quoted as saying  that he anticipated his death would result in a payment of

“somewhere between £3 million and £5 million to the Treasury because it’s high time society had its chunk.”

Well, he won’t get any argument from me on that one.


Lichfield Cathedral

The problem with pointing out that Lichfield Cathedral is unique because it’s the only medieval cathedral with three spires, is that no one seems to know the answer to the follow up question of WHY.

"3 is a magic number. No more, no less. You don't have to guess..."

“3 is a magic number.”

Perhaps it’s because this is the third church to be built on this site.A Norman church was built on the same site in 1085, replacing the wooden Saxon one and in 1195 construction of the present church began.

But three is also a crowd, and like a crowd, the history of Lichfield Cathedral is full of rabble. There were three significant “rabbles” concerning the cathedral and the state. The first of which happened at the Council of Chelsea in 787 AD, often referred to as the “Contentious Synod” because King Offa of Mercia proposed that the Archbishop of Canterbury share powers with the new Archbishop of Lichfield. The proposal was vehemently opposed and although the king got his wish the Archbishopric of Lichfield was dissolved upon his death, presumably because he couldn’t pay the promised annual shipment of gold to the pope any more.

St. Chad’s bones are interred in the Saxon church beneath the present building, so Lichfield became a site of pilgrimage until the Reformation but it wasn’t until the Civil Wars that there would be another major “rabble” concerning the church. Most of the townsfolk were Parliamentarian, the fortified church was Royalist and during this time (1643-46) there were three great sieges of Lichfield. Robert Grenville, 2nd Baron Brooke, led an assault on the fortress on behalf of the Parliamentarians but was killed by a deflected bullet from John Dyott, who was up on the battlements of the central cathedral spire. It is one of the earliest recorded incident of death from a sniper.

With Brooke down, his loyal deputy Sir John Snell had to step up and take over the siege. If this were a Hollywood movie, this would be the point where the hero’s had enough. There would be a heartbeat of silence as Brooke falls in slow motion, followed by a roar of murderous rage that almost drowns out the sound of fire power exploding everywhere. The camera would focus on Snell’s fierce yet undeniably attractive face. Muscles straining, he runs towards the cathedral to avenge his friend. Somehow, he remains unscathed while ineptly shot bullets whiz past him as he saves the day and gets the girl. And she’ll be a thin girl, too. At some point, Celine Dion starts singing because she ALWAYS sings at the end of a film. No one notices as you leave the theatre and go back to your uneventful life, and you just know you will die alone alone alone.

But wait… the guy is named Snell. No self-respecting hero will be called Snell. And this guy was no hero–he was notorious for his tyranny and arrogance. Plus, he profited from the Ship Money collected under Charles I, and married the widow of some dude he harassed to demand payment. If that’s not bad enough, he also did it while looking like this:

Sir John Snell (1593-1671).

Sir John Snell (1593-1671)

The Royalist forces surrendered two days later, and though it was retaken by Prince Rupert of the Rhine in the same year, the real loser was the cathedral. It suffered extensive damage–all the stained glass windows were smashed, the roof was ruined and the central spire was demolished so it could be used as a metaphor for the collapse of a heretofore unchallenged notion called the “divine right of kings.” The Royalty may have been restored with Charles II, but the “natural order” has changed and power had irrevocably shifted to Parliament.

Following the Restoration, the cathedral began the process of refurbishment, made possible by funds donated by the monarch, but anyone who’s had their house refurbished knows it’s a slow and never ending process. In the 18th century, while Lichfield was going through a “golden age,” the cathedral was in decay. It wasn’t fully repaired until the 19th century, when James Wyatt, the same architect who worked on Westminster Abbey and gained the sobriquet “The Destroyer,” was hired. He arranged for some major structural work to be done, and this prompted a final rabble.

Church Interior

Church Interior

Screen by Wyatt

Screen by Wyatt

Wyatt’s work on the cathedral was heavily criticized, most notably by John Carter in Pursuits of Architectural Innovation. Original features were covered by Roman cement and the 15th century library was pulled down. No one liked it, so eventually it was restored to its former grandeur by George Gilbert Scott who had a more sensitive approach to renovation.

Thanks to Scott, original features from the medieval period (including the tombs of ancient Saxon kings) remain today, and the cathedral looks pretty much the way it did in the days when Anna Seward, Erasmus Darwin and Lichfield’s favorite son, Dr. Samuel Johnson, attended sermons in the cathedral hall when he wasn’t busy working on his famous dictionary. They didn’t know why the cathedral had three spires either, but there have been no major rabbles from the crowd since.


Alnwick Castle

Upon entering Alnwick Castle, I wasn’t thinking how popular a choice it is for filming locations even before it became Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies, or that it’s one of the top 10 most visited stately homes in England and welcomes around 800,000 visitors a year. Like many people, I entered the cobbled courtyard that housed the principal rooms looking a little dazed and conflicted.

There’s nothing particularly bewildering about Alnwick Castle’s layout, even if it’s one of the oldest castles to never have a square keep. No, our strange expression was caused by an experience we all shared immediately before being granted access to what has been the Percy family’s principal seat for over 700 years.

Entrance is £14.50

Entrance is £14.50, and that’d be £26.25 each if you also want to see the garden. Enjoy!

Well, thanks a bunch, Your Grace. Being the Duke of Northumberland, you’re probably strapped for cash and after all, “we are all in this together.” Poor thing, it must be dreadful living in the country’s biggest inhabited castle save for Windsor and being one of the major landowners in England. Maybe that’s why castle visitors only have access to the one restroom? Of course I’m willing to pay to see some of your priceless collection of art. At least it’s cheaper than Warwick Castle. No, Alnwick doesn’t have knights jousting or the world’s largest trebuchet, but it’s just as historical and it really is my pleasure.

The castle is the birthplace of the brave but kinda dim teenage knight Henry “Hotspur” Percy (20 May 1364 – 21 July 1403), who was immortalized in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. It also houses 3 museums and in one of them I saw Elizabeth I’s bespoke gloves (proving she had elegant and long, tapered fingers) and Oliver Cromwell’s nightcap showing the man had not only the famed “warts and all” but also an unusually tiny head.

For his speed and readiness to attack, they called him Hotspur.

For his speed and readiness to attack, they called him Hotspur. Naturally.

The castle is situated just below the border to Scotland, and under constant threat of invasion from the north. So, by necessity the earliest Percys  had to be skilled in warfare. For simplicity, they were also mostly named Henry. Hotspur was the 2nd Earl of Northumberland. Too impatient to wait for the Bishop of Durham’s troops during the Battle of Otterburn in 1388, Hotspur launched an attack on the Scots headed by Douglas, under cover of darkness.

It was a fearless move, the Scots would never see them coming. Unfortunately, Hotspur can’t see in the dark either so his troops mistakenly attack camp followers and servants instead of the soldiers. Amazingly, some of these Scots fought back and alerted the main forces. So Hotspur lost about a thousand men and was captured because of his impatience, while the Scots only lost 200.  Luckily, Douglas is killed in victory and Hotspur, along with his brother Ralph, were ransomed back to England.

To show his appreciation for being released, Hotspur betrayed his savior Richard II and put Henry IV on the throne.  Together, the two Henrys successfully fought against the raiding Scots but Hotspur really was a “loose cannon” and during an argument about what to do with the Scottish prisoners in the 1402 Battle of Humbleton Hill he rebelled against Henry IV and in 1403 Hotspur made his best move yet by dying in the Battle of Shrewsbury in hand to hand combat.

Probably learning from his ancestor’s folly, Henry, the 6th Earl of Northumberland (1502-1537), was “a lover, not a fighter.” Oh, he did engage in border warfare, but he wasn’t like his brothers, Sir Thomas and Sir Ingelram, who just like their ancestor Hotspur rebelled and were leaders in the Pilgrimage of Grace even while heartbroken Henry remained loyal to the King.

Today, Henry Percy is mostly remembered as being Anne Boleyn’s loving fiancé who was forced to break their engagement when Henry VIII became interested in Anne. Percy was then immediately wed to Mary Talbot, and so started a marriage so bad that within 4 years the couple separated and refused to see each other forever. And then a few years later, he was ordered by the King to be one of the jurors at Anne Boleyn’s trial. Percy collapsed after the verdict was announced and had to be carried out. He died just one year after Anne’s execution.

Anne Boleyn's first Henry, 6th Earl of Northumberland.

Anne Boleyn’s first Henry, 6th Earl of Northumberland.

Through the next  Percy generations, over and over remnants of  the passionate and foolish Hotspur would emerge. The 8th Earl was found dead in the Tower of London after being imprisoned for plotting to marry Mary, Queen of Scots. And then there was 9th Earl of Northumberland, also called Henry and known as The Wizard Earl, who was a long time prisoner in the Tower because he employed Thomas Percy, who was one of the conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot.

How hard could it be to learn from the mistakes of others? The issues that are fought about change with the times, but the reactions and arguments are always the same. The lessons learned seem as lost as the £14.50 I will never get back, but at least I got to laugh at Cromwell’s tiny hat.