Man In A Suitcase

York, England

As an American, I'm used to thinking in terms of vast distances. I'm not sure whether I chose my college because it was 350 miles from my parents. (That may have been a happy coincidence.) But spending time in Europe reminds me that other places operate on quite different scales.

So with a free Sunday during a business trip to London, I decided to explore beyond the limits of the city. York is just two hours by train to the northeast and is, I was promised, well worth a look. (I took that estimate with a grain of salt, since the previous afternoon it took that long to cover a mere thirty miles from a friend's home back to town. Fortunately, the travel gremlins decided to take Sunday off.)

I'd done no preparation for the trip. All I knew was that it had some of the original city walls, that York Minster was impressive and worth a visit (I thought that was some kind of cheese) and that everything important was within walking distance. But sometimes ignorance really is bliss. And it was with a sense of adventure that I stepped off the train and promptly fell in love with York's most excellent train station. This is the kind of place that reminds me that there's an alternative to the sterile air terminals where I spend way too much of my time.

Lacking even the most basic of maps, I set off from the station in search of town. Luckily, the city wall sits right outside the door. And, being the experienced traveler I am, I decided that the center of town was more likely to be inside the wall than out. So I walked along the wall until I found an entrance. I'd have followed that street into town even if there hadn't been a sign directing me to all the good stuff. A couple of streets later I'd reached the river, always an important feature of a medieval city. And a couple of minutes after that I'd arrived at the kind of place that we tourists all want to find but so rarely do: a real life city centre that puts Disney's Main Street to shame.

My friend was right: nothing cheesy about this Minster! (Sometimes I embarrass even myself.) But I much preferred wandering the narrow streets, window shopping and people watching. On the Sunday of a three day weekend, York was busy but hardly mobbed. The vendors and street performers were out, the shops were full of interesting merchandise, I had a proper hotel lunch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding (in Yorkshire, even!) and a good time was had by all.

Once I'd had my fill of the centre, I decided to take a wall along the wall. And noticed something very interesting: no railing! Imagine yourself walking a narrow path ten or fifteen feet above the street with a wall on your right and nothing but air to the left. I hugged the wall as best I could, especially when passing folks going the other way. And tried not to think of the damage I'd do if I slipped.

In fact, there are railings. But only where the wall passes over the road. I guess they're more concerned about people falling on cars. The lack of safety gear did make it easier to take pictures. Like these rather handsome townhouses just past one set of city gates. I assume they're worth more because of the view. What would you pay to face a grass embankment? With or without falling tourists?

York is also home to the National Railway Museum, a great place to check out some really big toys. What is it about trains that so fires the imagination? I guess after so many years working with vanishingly small technology there's something dramatic about these iron monsters. I particularly admire the Rocket at left, a replica of an 1827 model that influenced the use of steam all over Europe. And what boy wouldn't want a workshop like this one? Just think of the stuff you could pull apart with all this room and all these tools! (And then try to put back together without leaving too many extra parts. A faint hope indeed, at least if my own childhood is any guide.)

Alton Towers, Staffordshire, England

Alton Towers is a magnificent early nineteenth century manor house a couple of hours drive from London. The property was built by the Earl of Shrewsbury, whose family had owned the surrounding land for hundreds of years. The property became famous for its extensive gardens, which were begun around 1800 and opened to the public a mere hundred twenty-four years later. The buildings are undergoing a slow restoration, with much to be done before they'll achieve a fraction of their former glory. But the gardens are still worthy of their reputation.

Are you impressed? Did you really believe I'd travel so far to see a big old wreck of a house, gardens or no gardens? Silly you. Actually, there's a much better reason to visit Alton Towers: rides! Alton Towers combines that historic setting with modern adrenaline- and nausea-inducing technology. It's Disneyland with a real castle! And there's something wonderful about looking out from nineteenth century battlements toward twenty-first century scream machines. To say nothing of all that pristine land beyond. You certainly don't get a view like that in Anaheim.

The track in the picture above and the ones on either side belong to Oblivion, one of the park's premier attractions. Imagine yourself on a small grandstand mounted on a very narrow track. You move along the track toward a rather precipitous drop. You inch your way to the edge, hanging face down for a moment or two while an impressive set of brakes keep you from going over just yet. Then the brakes release. And you find yourself hurtling toward a hole in the ground that seems way too narrow for your car. A short experience. But an undeniable rush. If you like that sort of thing.

Nemesis is undoubtedly the best ride at the park. A metal coaster whose track is almost entirely inside a ravine, it's fast, smooth, totally exhilarating and fairly addictive. (We only rode it three times that day. Blame the crowds.) It's also impossible to photograph properly, at least with the equipment I had. Try as I might, I couldn't capture the rush, the speed, the blood red rivers that make this such a beautiful and exciting ride. I guess you'll just have to experience it for yourself.

Alton Towers also has quite a range of more traditional "spin and spew" rides, many of which move in ways I didn't think were possible. And then there are the water rides. You'd think I'd know better; this is England, after all. But no, I had to try the rapids ride. Six people got into the boat. Five got out without looking any the worse for wear. I wasn't quite so lucky; people actually had the nerve to ask if I'd fallen in!

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