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I finally get Tale of Two Cities

Back in the dim recesses of years dated BC (Before Covid), my high school English teacher assigned Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. A few weeks later, there was a pop quiz. Except for my younger sister/classmate, the entire class failed the quiz. (My sister later admitted that her expertise was from watching the old movie, which was the only thing on TV while she was babysitting the week before.) I remember Lisa Dougherty standing up and telling the teacher the book was so dry that if Noah was navigating the ark across a flooded world today, the dove would bring back A Tale of Two Cities.

Our unimpressed teacher sentenced us to read the entire book aloud during lunch detention—for the rest of our natural lives, I think, as that dessicated book was well over a bazillion pages. Luckily, my parents took pity on us and we moved to another state.

From that torture, I remember two things. First is my sister, who was assigned to read the part of Little Lucy Manette (which she did with movie-Lucy’s cringe-worthy handwringing and call of, “Eeeeauoh pray faaaaah-thaaaa.”) And second was the phrase, “Recalled to Life”, the code for old Dr. Manette’s return to society after years of enforced isolation. But Dr. M wasn’t buying it. And now that we’re supposed to come out of our covid restrictions/quarantine/isolation, I’m understanding his misgivings.


For the first time in all these years, I get Dr. Manette’s reluctance to emerge from captivity.

The Save-the-Date had been on my fridge for two years. 

Every now and then I wondered about that covid-postponed wedding. Then the bride’s mother anxiously emailed, “… if you can get off the bloody island we are hoping you are coming!” Seems my invitation had gone awol and the wedding was ON. (She knows me well, so she informed me that I WOULD be wearing a dress. And makeup. And I would get myself to Leeds asap, and I would like it. Well, damn.)

[View of the Leeds Canal from my hotel window on Granary Wharf.]  

When Leeds was originally chartered in the early 13th century, town fathers shortsightedly failed to plan for a future that included the automobile. Navigating the spaghetti-tangle of streets to reach my hotel on the old Granary Wharf was…challenging. Much cursing happened, even though I now drive British (smile and give the British-wave to allow other drivers to go ahead of you, something Americans would see as threat to their street cred, manhood, and proof of life.)

Our first stop was Harewood House. Although the house itself (which starred as Downton Abbey in the recent film) wasn’t open to visitors, our real goal was the garden. A proper English garden in the mid-18th century required a water feature and an architectural feature such as a ruin (usually man-made) or folly. Harewood House offered both.

Designed by Lancelot “Capability” Brown, the most famous landscape designer of the era, the gardens surrounding Harewood House also include a collection of exotic birds and even penguins. (Penguins!)

The wedding was the best I’ve attended in years. (Okay, it’s probably the only one I’ve attended in years, but any wedding that has homemade Sloe Gin and personalized M&Ms as favors instead of dental-hazard Jordan Almonds is a winner.)

The next morning, grey clouds threatened. Rain was obviously imminent. But I’d already tasted freedom, so I pointed my little car north to Fountains Abbey, a National Trust and World Heritage site.

By the time John Aislabie inherited in 1693, the Studley Royal estate had already been in the family for over 200 years. But John wanted more. LOTS more. One of the architects of perhaps the largest financial swindle in British history, the South Sea Bubble, Aislabie retired to his estate politically disgraced but swimming in profits. What his estate needed, he decided, was two things: a water feature, and a folly. On steroids.

The water feature was miles of lake, shaped to gently highlight temples, classical statues, waterfalls, and gardens.

The folly had to be on equally epic scale. Luckily, the very thing was just next door.

The tower was finished only a few years before the Abbey was left in ruins.

Fountains Abbey was founded in 1132 by thirteen monks who joined the Cistercian Order in search of a simpler, more devout life—and those all-important lay brothers to take care of all that pesky day-to-day labor. Soon the new Cistercian Abbey became one of the largest in England, welding enormous wealth and power, with crops and wool from tens of thousands sheep on their vast acreage.

Local wool goods are still cropping up.

They survived marauding Scots, bad harvests, and the Black Death. Unfortunately for the monks, King Henry VIII had the hots for Anne Boleyn, and since the Pope refused to annul his (23-year) marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry started his own church. As one does.

I’m sure the fact that English religious houses controlled more than 25% of the wealth of England had absolutely nothing to do with the Dissolution of the Monasteries act that removed Fountains Abbey roofs in 1539, leaving the massive abbey in ruins overnight.

It sucked for the monks, but two hundred years later, it made the perfect garden ornament for the Aislabies.

Best. Folly. Ever! But John Aislabie’s dream didn’t become reality until his son William inherited and managed to buy the abbey property. Although the Studley Royal house itself was destroyed by fire in 1946, the incredible water gardens and largest monastic ruins in England are still breathtaking.

But bring your wellies, and be ready to walk miles.