Monday, September 25, 2017

Observations on The Abbey

Here at the Abbey, there's a British faculty member who's also an early modernist, and it's delightful to chat.  Unlike at home, where most of my conversations with the other early modern person in my department are about bureaucratic stuff, and not early modern anything (and we don't seem to have ever really become friends), we don't have much bureaucracy in common here, so mostly we chat about early modern stuff.  It's fun getting our geek on and knowing the other person is making the same connections and such.

At Bletchley Park the other day, I went with the student group and some other faculty folks.  And I noticed, the students really fly through things.  They pass through the museum almost without stopping.  The other faculty folks and I, in contrast, were listening to explainers, reading stuff, and so on.  And so, by the end, I would have been happy to spend another hour or two there, and the students would have mostly been happy to leave an hour earlier.

It's similar when I talk to them about visiting, say, London.  They'll say they went to Westminster Abbey, and I'll ask which part they liked best, or did they go see this other part, and they'll say that they didn't go in, just walked past the outside.  It seems to me that if you're just going to walk past the outside of a building that's more interesting inside, you might as well just look at a picture and save yourself the effort.

But I am old and grumpy, I guess.

Bletchley Park

In the annals of visits to new places, on Sunday I joined the school trip to Bletchley Park.  It sounds interesting and cool when you read about it, but in person, it's way better!

Bletchley doesn't sound like the sort of place with lots of scenery pictures, but it's beautiful.  If I lived near, I'd get a year pass just to picnic on the grounds regularly.  They've got lots of comfortable looking seating around the grassy area, and it looks very inviting.

Alas, I only had a few hours, so I didn't stop to sit down except for a quick bite to eat.

First up is the manor house.  It's very beautiful inside, and there are displays about the work done at Bletchley and the people who did the work.  They seem to focus a lot in the manor on the recreational side of things, while other areas focus more on the work.

 This is the back of a "Bombe" machine, designed by Alan Turing.  It's an electro-mechanical machine that sorts through codes using probabilities.  Here's the basic idea:  the British intercepted lots of Morse code radio messages.  Once they'd figured out the rotor system that the German Enigma machine was using (which they started with a good idea about since Enigma machines were initially patented as business machines for sending coded business messages, so several countries had bought them to work with), and they knew that a lot of messages sent out were basic information, weather, supplies and such.  If they could pick out a message that was likely to be, say, weather, that would usually have specific words in it, then they'd enter the code into the Bombe, and it would use probability to suggest one or more settings that the Enigma codes were using that day.  (They changed daily.)  Then they'd test those, and if one worked, they knew the code settings for the day, and could punch in code and come back with the message.  Well, they'd get a version of the message, because nothing was going to be said in full or spelled out, of course.
 And this is the front of the Bombe, where the women (mostly women, evidently) who ran the tests input the messages.
 This is an Enigma machine.  There are three rotors near the top (there's a little open lid that could be closed over them).  The rotors have the alphabet.  There were five rotors to choose from, each with 26 letters.  Three rotors were chosen each day, in a specific order, with specific settings.  So that gets difficult!  Once the rotors were in and settings done, the coder entered a letter on the keyboard, and then a different letter lit up on the upper panel.  And the coder would write that letter down, and then enter the next one.  The coded letters were given to a radio operator who used Morse Code to transmit the information.  At the other end, someone with an Enigma machine and the rotor and setting information did the same process, entering the coded letters and coming out with the message.

I think they said the code was reciprocal, so if A --> X, then X--> A.
 The next one is a Lorenz machine, which was the German next step in code making, and way, way more complicated.
 These are the boring looking buildings where the probably very boring work of day in, day out trying to figure out the codes and translate them into meaningful information happened.

 Some cottages!
 A memorial to Polish codebreakers.  From what the tour guide said, Poland had been really advanced in mathematics and codebreaking before the war, and had shared a lot of information with France and Britain, and that information probably saved tons and tons of time in breaking codes once the war started.
 Some important people.

 All in all, I could have spent probably 8 or more hours here happily exploring.  I think we were here for just about 4, so good, but there's so very much to see and learn!

Saturday, September 23, 2017

If It's Friday, This Must be Lincoln

On Friday, there was a school trip to Lincoln.  It was great!  The school organized everyone so that we would all have four "slots," one each for the Cathedral, Roman ruins, Castle, and then a fourth for going to whatever seemed fun.  Faculty were allowed to do whatever, so I tagged along for the Roman ruins and Cathedral tours (led by British faculty folks), then had lunch at a pie shop, then went to the Castle, and then back to the Cathedral to look some more.  Because the Cathedral is just that GREAT!

Without someone telling me, I would have totally missed these in the street.  There's a row of them, as you can see in the next picture.  Just right in the middle of the street.
 They mark, according to our guide, the columns that held up the Roman basilica/forum thingy, back when Lincoln was a colonia of Rome.  (I love that some names have Roman origins, and we still use them.)
 Part of the Roman wall still stands.  I gather it started as a fort, and then once the local population was pretty much pacified, turned into a colonia, a city with colonists from all over Rome.
 And, when it was a colonia, it had big open gates, the better to welcome traders.  Unfortunately, that meant it wasn't defensible really when the Angles and the Saxons attacked once the Romans pulled out the legions.  Oops.

Amazing to think these have been here for about 2000 years.

 The Cathedral, on the other hand, is practically new, not even a thousand years old yet.

 We learned a bit about architecture and planning.  Notice, for example, that the row of kings disrupts the arches built around the door.  Not part of the original planning, perhaps.
 The Normans were descendants of Vikings, and their buildings show motifs that come from Viking imagery, like this amazing dragon over the arch.
 And these very weird heads with massive, ornate tongues sticking out.

 Inside, if you embiggen the picture, and look along the roofline, you can see where there's an architectural error.  Or something.  (I missed the story that went along with that, alas.  But I've read that a lot of the Cathedral was ruined by an earthquake in the 12th century, so maybe after that?)
 A closer view.
 The stone masons were amazing!

After the Roman and Cathedral tours and lunch, I went to the Castle.  Imposing!

The most interesting part of the Castle for me was in the prison chapel.  When originally built, the prison was built on a system of separation, keeping prisoners alone.  And the chapel was built the same way, so there are individual little cells where the prisoners all stand, with a door between each, and watch/listen to the preacher in the pulpit up above.
 They had manikins in some of the little cells, and holy cow, they're creepy!  I looked down, not realizing one was there, and almost jumped out of my skin when I saw it!  You can see a couple heads in this picture below.
 Magna Carta was, as always, magnificent and exciting.  They also had two Charter of the Forests from different signings on display.  But you can't take pictures in there.  So I walked around the top of the castle wall walk, in the rain, and took a picture looking towards the Cathedral.  I hadn't realized how different the spire things are until I looked from this angle.

 After walking the wall, I went back to the Cathedral to look at things I hadn't looked at enough before.  There's little Hugh's memorial, and a Bishop Richard Fleming's famous cadaver tomb (there was a scaffolding being put up just in front of it, so my picture's sort of iffy).

And then it occurred to me to see if there were any Green Men about, so I asked, and the docent gave me a map!  Here's the first one, in a little hidden place, but lit now by modern lighting.
 This next one is interesting, with oak leaves and such.

 And finally, a friend showed me these snails, which are a reminder of our mortality.

Midweek Visit to Woolsthorpe, Isaac Newton's Home

Woolsthorpe (the link is to the National Trust site) is amazing.  It's where Isaac Newton was born, and where he lived for a few years before being sent off to school.  But when he finished his undergraduate degree at Cambridge, the plague was bad, and he (I'm told) returned to Woolsthorpe for about 18 months.  And later, he credited those 18 months with helping him make the discoveries he made about gravity and the light spectrum.

He lived much of his adult life away, though he owned Woolsthorpe.  But his death mask (or a copy, anyway), made it back.  Death masks are very weirdly fascinating.

 Kitchen, I think.
 Here's the room where he supposedly did lots of his work.
 And the room where he was born.  (None of the furniture is from when he was at the house.)
 Here's a back view of the house.  On the left is one of the outbuildings for farming stuffs.
 And here's the front, facing onto the fabled orchard.  See the S things?  I'm told they're ties, and attached to long bars that go through the structure, and so keep the walls from bulging out from age and weight.  (And so says Wikipedia!)
Here's the docent telling stories in front of the apple tree.  Well, the not quite apple tree.  Supposedly, this was the apple tree, but it fell.  But then from the trunk, a new tree grew, so it's the same genetic tree.  And lots of people have taken slips of the tree for grafting so that they have the apple tree, too, sort of.  The docent said it was a cider/cooking apple tree, and not an eating apple tree.

I have to say, walking where Isaac Newton walked, seeing where he may have scrawled on walls, being where he was, that was incredible.  Mind blowing, even.

I'd recommend Woolsthorpe for a half day visit, for sure.  It's really fun!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Friday at Hadrian's Wall

This past Friday, I went to Hadrian's Wall.  I went up to Newcastle upon Tyne on Thursday evening, and stayed at one of those hotels that's totally confusing.  It's sort of hidden away (I found it by chance), and then it's labyrinthian inside.  You go up a flight, down a half flight, over, up another two flights, and so on.  But my room was roomy and comfortable, with windows that opened and good drapes, and a comfortable bed.

The best way I could figure out was to take a train from Newcastle to Hexham, and from the train station bus stop there, get on a bus that goes out to Haltwhistle, stopping along the way a bunch.  I got a day pass for about 12 quid, and off I went.

My first stop was at Chesters Roman Fort.  I bought myself a membership in English Heritage for 54 quid.  Let's see if it's worth it for the length of my visit.  (6.60 pounds entry at Chesters.)

 The River Tyne, looking upstream (north).
 The River Tyne, looking downstream (south)
 Roman Baths.  When I'd done walking around, I asked at the information desk about the ruins.  I was thinking that they'd sort of been rebuilt, with modern cement and such.  But no, what's there has been dug up, but the cement is Roman.  And the structures are what survived (partly covered with erosion and such over time).  This blows me away.
 A phallic symbol in the main courtyard.  Naturally.
 So this vault, this has survived for about 2000 years.  Mind blown.
 Early under-floor heating set up.  (I saw this sort of thing when I was in Bath, in 2011, but still, way cool!)
So that was Chesters Roman Fort.  Really interesting!  Well worth a visit.

Then I got back on the bus and went to Housesteads Roman Fort (7.5 pounds).  Maybe even cooler than Chesters Roman Fort.  At any rate, right up there!

 I saw this beautiful butterfly warming itself in the sun.
 Gorgeous scenes!  Big big walls!
 The latrines!  Probably an 8 on my scale when they still worked.  Really interesting!
 More wall, landscape!
 It's like you can see and see a long way!
 Clouds looming.  It drizzled a little, but only a little.
 This sheep was eating on its knees.  It looked fine, but was eating on its knees.
I went out to wait for the bus, and saw a couple of birds, which I've posted on a facebook group for help identifying.

Then I got back on the bus; the day was running down, and I needed to choose between Vindolanda and the Roman Army Museum.  I chose the museum and was amused by this sign:
 The Roman Army Museum was so so.  Maybe I was just tired, but it seemed aimed at kids more than adults, and reminded me of the Viking museum at York, but less full in some ways.

Finally, I took the bus all the way back to the train station at Hexham, and headed back to Newcastle.
All in all, this was a really interesting day out!