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Low Mountains or High Tea: Misadventures in Britain's National Parks

Low Mountains or High Tea: Misadventures in Britain's National Parks

by Steve Sieberson
Low Mountains or High Tea: Misadventures in Britain's National Parks

Low Mountains or High Tea: Misadventures in Britain's National Parks

by Steve Sieberson

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Overview

When Steve Sieberson and his wife unexpectedly found themselves in Britain with an entire summer on their hands, they readily agreed to avoid the usual tourist attractions, opting instead for a road trip to the UK’s far-flung national parks. As they set out, however, he envisioned bracing days of energetic hillwalking, while she assumed they would relax in tearooms and cozy pubs.

Seldom planning more than a few days in advance, the two traversed the country in a rented Vauxhall, subjecting themselves to single-track lanes, diabolical signage, and whimsical advice from locals. They discovered a town called Mirthless, a place where cats’ eyes are removed, and a vibrating cottage, while at mealtimes they dove fearlessly into black pudding, Eton mess, and barely recognizable enchiladas. Meanwhile, after their initial attempts at hiking together nearly ended in disaster, Sieberson received dispensation to scramble alone to the highest point in each national park—as long as he was quick about it and left plenty of time for more sedentary pursuits. Low Mountains or High Tea dishes up the charms and eccentricities of rural Great Britain as seen through the eyes of two Americans who never really knew what was coming next.
    


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496216953
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 09/01/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 296
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Steve Sieberson is an adventurer, mountaineer, and travel writer. Educated in both literature and law, he roamed the world as an international lawyer practicing in Seattle, and is now a professor of international law at Creighton University School of Law in Omaha. He is the author of The Naked Mountaineer: Misadventures of an Alpine Traveler (Nebraska, 2014). 
 

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

The Best-Laid Plans

Not long ago, during the intermission of a mountain film festival, I sat at a table outside the screening room to sign copies of my earlier book, The Naked Mountaineer: Misadventures of an Alpine Traveler, a memoir of my climbs around the world. A fit-looking man with short-cropped gray hair approached my table. He picked up the book, read the back cover, and said, "Should I buy this?"

"Oh, yes," I responded. "If you like the films, I'm sure you'll enjoy my book."

Taking in a deep breath with a slight pause at the top, the man said,

"So ... have you climbed any of the Fourteeners in Colorado?"

"Yes, seven or eight."

"I've done them all."

"All fifty-four?"

"Fifty-eight actually." Then, having gained the upper hand, he asked,

"Have you done any state high points?"

"Let's see, maybe half a dozen. I've never gotten organized about it."

"I've done them all."

"Including Denali?"

"Of course," he sniffed. He almost added, "Hasn't everybody?"

At that point I just wanted him to buy the book, but he was ready for the kill. "Have you done the Seven Summits?"

"No, I haven't had the time or money to try any of them." Okay, I thought, give him his due: "How about you?"

"I've done all but Everest, and I've been on two Everest expeditions that got turned back short of the summit. I'm planning to go back and finish it." After letting that sink in for a moment, he added, "So, have you completed any high point lists?"

I should have simply surrendered, but I heard myself saying, "Well, my wife and I recently spent three months touring the national parks in Great Britain, and I did make it to their high points."

"And how high do they get?"

"A little over four thousand feet."

He processed that information for a few seconds. Then, with a hmmmph, he set the book down and walked away.

My immediate impulse was to call to him and say: "Wait! There really are mountains in the UK, and they're well worth visiting." I wanted to tell him about my climbs but also about exploring the British countryside and how rocky summits are only part of the picture. Where else in the world can you feel at one moment that you are completely at home and at the next that you are on another planet? Where else can you experience the roots of your own culture but then stumble onto edible hockey pucks and a place where cats' eyes are removed? I wanted to impress on him that we have been to many places in the world and that roaming Britain's back roads was one of our most memorable trips ever.

I wanted to say these things, but it was too late. The man was already at a table where a woman was promoting her indoor climbing gym, and he was asking, "So ... have you climbed any of the Fourteeners?"

That might have concluded the matter, but I can be stubborn at times and I couldn't let it go. Oh, I didn't really care about Mr. My-List-Is-Bigger-Than-Yours, but I did want to share my stories. If he wasn't receptive, someone would be. So let's proceed. Let me tell you about a summer in the British national parks and how it came about quite by accident.

Yes, that's correct. We hadn't intended to go to the UK at all, and when my wife and I landed in London on the twenty-seventh of May, we had ninety days on our hands and no plans to speak of. Moreover, we had only the vaguest idea that Britain might have places called national parks. Ancient villages, castles, green fields ... yes, of course, but preserves of wild country? That was not on our minds.

So, how do two veteran travelers find themselves in a foreign country with a calendar that is essentially blank? No, we didn't get on the wrong flight — it's more complicated than that.

My university in Omaha had granted me a year's sabbatical, and we had decided to spend it in Italy. That was an easy choice because my wife is the daughter of Italian immigrants. She has a distinctive Mediterranean look, she talks with her hands, and she doesn't suffer fools gladly — in my life she is most emphatically the Italian Woman. During our years together she has rather deftly caused me to fall in love with the Italian language, Verdi opera, and exquisitely prepared fresh food. Of course we would go to Italy.

Our first challenge was to agree on the big picture, and my thought was that we explore the Apennine Peninsula end to end. The country is made up of twenty "regions," so we could spend two or three weeks in each. And incidentally, I could tackle each region's highest mountain. My online research suggested that the climbing would be grand — Mont Blanc, Mount Aetna, and many others. Yes, Highpointing the Regions of Italy. Now there's a plan.

Delicately, diplomatically, I floated the idea to the Italian Woman — a red, white, and green trial balloon attached to a bit of climbing rope.

It didn't take her more than five seconds to shoot that one out of the sky. This may not be verbatim, but I think it's a reasonable approximation of her reaction: Are you completely crazy? (She may have dredged up the word pazzo.) How would you possibly do those climbs — who would you climb with? (Good question, actually.) Do you have any idea what this would cost? (A lot, come to think of it.) And the clincher: Do you really think I'm going to just tag along and sit around while you disappear for days at a time? (Apparently not.)

"You might be able to do a few climbs with me."

"How many?"

"Maybe two."

"Wonderful."

"It was just an idea."

"Not much of one."

Recovering slightly, I tried, "But if I don't do it now, when will I ever have another chance for something like this?"

"After I'm dead and gone."

"But I'll be ninety-five then."

"Stay healthy."

As the smoke cleared, I picked myself up, and we started considering what might work for both of us. A year in one place such as Rome sounded nice and settled, but shouldn't we see more than that? How about a month each in twelve places? Too much moving, endless logistics. Six places for two months each? Four and three, three and four, two and six? After many weeks of discussion (after all, Rome wasn't built in a day), we settled on a plan that we called "Four Seasons in Italy" — our answer to A Year in Provence, with theme music by Vivaldi.

It was a simple but appealing idea. We would spend three months in each of four different places. Summer in the mountainous north. Autumn in a central Italian hill town. Winter in the far south. Spring in Rome. Every season had something to offer: alpine scenery and fresh air in summer (and dare I say, possibly one little climb for me?). The grape harvest in Umbria. The first warm winter of our lives, and on the sea (I thought Sicily sounded good, but the Italian Woman is of the firm belief that Sicily is Not Italy, and that is why the toe of Italy's boot appears to be kicking the island toward North Africa). And to cap it off, a lovely spring in the Eternal City, ground zero for everything Italian. We had a plan, and our first step was to find our summer home. An internet search yielded an apartment in a British-run hostel in the Dolomites north of Venice. We happily paid a hefty deposit and began dreaming of rock pinnacles soaring over green meadows filled with wildflowers and romping lambs.

Now, in order to set the stage for what happened next, I need to mention that our planning for Italy took place during the spring, in Madrid, where I was teaching on a faculty exchange. Based on advice from my host university, we had entered Spain on tourist visas, and the personnel department had assured me that when the semester ended, we could move on to any EU country. They were dead wrong. In early May, when we visited the Italian embassy in Madrid to sort out a few details, we learned that (1) an American tourist in Spain or any of the other Continental countries (the "Schengen Area") is allowed to stay for ninety days only; (2) after ninety days we would have to leave Europe for three months before returning for a new ninety-day period; and (3) we had already been in Spain for 120 days and were thus Illegal Aliens. Under the circumstances our only hope of moving directly to Italy was to apply to the Italian government for a long-term visa. Also, because we were American citizens based in Omaha, we had to present this application at the Italian consulate in Chicago.

In desperation I contacted a professor friend in Rome, she called a colleague at the University of Perugia, and that person quickly issued an invitation for me to spend the academic year as a visiting professor. The Italian Woman and I then prepared our applications and paid a second visit to the Italian embassy. The sympathetic official reviewed our documents and pronounced that we would have no difficulty getting a one-year visa from the consulate in Chicago.

During our final days in Madrid we had the uneasy feeling that the Spanish deportation police were lurking in every subway tunnel, and at times we hesitated leaving our apartment for fear of being recognized as scofflaws. In mid-May, just as soon as my semester in Spain had ended, we left the Schengen Area — fortunately not in handcuffs. We flew to Omaha and then immediately to Chicago, where we had an appointment to present our applications. We had every expectation that a week later we would be winging our way to the Italian Alps, visas in hand, for the first of our Four Seasons.

At the Italian consulate on North Michigan Avenue there was one woman, the Processor, reviewing applications from behind a bullet-proof glass partition. A tinny-sounding speaker amplified every word spoken by the Processor to each trembling applicant. There were four appointments ahead of us — a woman from Thailand, a young man from China, an overweight American family, and a ponytailed American musician. Apparently, they were all imbeciles because nothing in their papers was remotely close to what the Italian government required, and it was beyond the Processor's comprehension that they could have so badly misinterpreted the clear instructions on the consulate's website.

Each and every one of the people ahead of us was summarily rejected, and with each successive arrivederci, my jet lag weighed a little heavier on my shoulders. Nevertheless, I thought we would provide a ray of sunshine in the Processor's dreary day because we had done a dry run with her counterpart, the Processadora, at the embassy in Madrid. Also, my wife's appearance screams "I'm one of you!"

As we approached the counter, the other people in the waiting room drew an audible, collective breath.

"Good morning," I said cheerily into the thick glass.

"What are you applying for?"

"A research visa for myself and a spousal visa for my wife. Here are our two applications." I slid the papers down and under the glass.

The Processor took our documents, flipped through them quickly, and without looking up said, "No." A slight pause, and she added, "No ... No ... No."

Apparently, we were imbeciles too, and we had produced nothing to justify sullying the Processor's homeland with our stinking presence during the coming year. I mentioned that we had had these papers reviewed in Madrid, and the Processor responded, "I cannot comment on how they do things in Spain." She pronounced Spain with a distinct hiss at the beginning, as if it were a profanity. She continued, saying that this was Chicago and the rules here were clear enough. I pointed out that the University of Perugia was expecting me, and the Processor responded that the university should have known that their letter of invitation was laughably insufficient. I reminded her that I had proof of insurance, salary, and money in the bank, plus a printed screenshot showing that on Facebook I had "liked" Silvio Berlusconi's tanning salon. The woman raised a hand as if to call for someone offstage to snare me with a hook and drag me away.

Meanwhile, my wife was standing beside me in a state of shock. Her lip was quivering with either rage or anguish — sometimes it's hard to tell. I pleaded with the Processor, "Isn't there anything we would qualify for?"

Sullenly, she took another look at my application and said: "Well, you are a law professor. Instead of research, you could go for study, yes?"

"Yes," I responded eagerly. "I will study the Italian constitution, the European Union, and international law. Further study is part of my job as a professor." As is the ability to think on my feet and dispense hooey at a moment's notice.

The Processor studied our papers again, looked up, and with the slightest hint of pleasantness, responded, "Okay then, you have enough here to qualify for a study visa — not research but study. I can process your application for twelve months of study."

My wife and I were smiling now. I gave her a little one-armed hug, and I wanted to lean forward and kiss the glass barrier.

"Oh," said the Processor, "there's just one thing."

"Okay," I responded. "What is it?"

"Your wife can't go with you."

The sobs this elicited from the woman on my side of the glass could have melted the marble heart of a Bernini statue, but the Processor was evidently made of titanium. My wife and I left empty-handed, thoroughly deflated, now certain that Italy was the last place we would ever want to visit.

It wasn't until we were sitting at Midway Airport for our flight back to Omaha that either of us uttered a word about what to do next. There was nothing for us in Omaha. I had no work there during the coming year, and we had no home either — in a fit of reducing our carbon footprint we had sold our house and most of our furniture before moving to Spain. And even more, we had declared ourselves nonresidents for U.S. tax purposes for the year, so we couldn't stay in the States for more than a few weeks without incurring an enormous tax bill. With Europe out of the picture and our own country off-limits, where could we go? Four Seasons in Ecuador? Do they even have seasons in Ecuador? We kicked around a number of possibilities, then settled back into a gloomy silence.

At that dark moment I heard someone speaking softly into my ear. I recognized the silky voice — it was either Prince Charles or Camilla, and it said: "Come to England, old chap. We British aren't part of that silly Schengen thing. We don't use the euro. Come to think of it, overlooking a bit of Saxon blood, we're hardly European at all. You can have a jolly good summer here, and as soon as you arrive, we'll sit down and have some tea and chips."

A few days later we were on our way to Britain. Fifteen national parks and their high points were waiting for us — we just didn't know it yet.

CHAPTER 2

Multifarious Puddings

The Italian Woman and I had made brief visits to England in the past and had seen all the major attractions, but we had never considered going there for a long stay. For one thing, we were attracted to the "otherness" of Continental cultures and their languages, and it seemed a bit lame to follow in the footsteps of so many Americans whose most daring foray abroad is a trip to Britain. For another, when your hometown is Seattle, where the Italian Woman and I had spent most of our lives, you don't find it too appealing to go somewhere else where it rains all the time. And really, why invest much time in a nation whose seminal event in history was a successful invasion by the French and whose signature food is, coincidentally, French fries?

Yet we had to face facts: the British Isles were available to us, while Italy was not. I took encouragement from a Monty Python sketch in which a would-be bank robber, played by John Cleese, was stunned to discover that he was holding up a lingerie shop instead of a bank. After being informed that there were no piles of cash on hand, he paused and said: "Adopt, adapt, and improve ... Just a pair of knickers then, please."

Before leaving the United States we had taken care of a few necessary details. First, having been burned once, I researched the UK visa requirements and confirmed that with no paperwork an American can enter as a tourist and stay for six months. Then, with some trepidation, I called Collett's Mountain Holidays, owners of the apartment we had rented in the Dolomites, to explain that we would not be coming to Italy. When I asked for a refund, they told me that their policy was to return only half the deposit. But then, after I pleaded for mercy, they offered to refund half and credit the rest toward a stay in one of their other lodges. How about northern Spain? No, we can't go back to the Continent. The French Pyrenees? No, same continent. Well, how about their nice B&B in the Yorkshire Dales? Where's that? Northern England. Okay, I'll call you from London, and we'll get directions from there.

Collett's made it clear that we would need a rental car to get to them and that any exploration outside London and the main tourist areas would be nearly impossible without our own vehicle. I said this would not be a problem, but that was just bravado. The thought of a British road trip was daunting. I had driven in England — and every American should do it once, just for bragging rights — but I was certain that I had used up my life's allotment of driving on the left and returning in one piece. The next time I sat behind a misplaced steering wheel, I would surely meet my Maker.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Low Mountains or High Tea"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Steve Sieberson.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. The Best-Laid Plans
2. Multifarious Puddings
3. Baby Steps and Buttertubs
4. The Hard Way Down
5. Searching for Urra Moor
6. Joke-a-Fone
7. Stare-Down on a Lonely Road
8. No Trace of Janet Leigh
9. Of Daffodils and the Silent W
10. Bad Mice and Blind Cats
11. A View to Five Lands
12. Wet Wool and Flavored Tea
13. A Sweet Mess
14. Embracing the Velar Fricative
15. Tilted Bogs and Cold Toast
16. Sensory Overload
17. One Brief, Shining Moment
18. Close Encounters
19. Passing through the Kingdom
20. Dancing in the Streets
21. Don’t Talk about the Troubles
22. Twelve Days on a Bus
23. Return to the Horseshoe
24. Losing It
25. Reunion
26. Wandering in a Fog
27. No Beach Access
28. Mainly in the Plain
29. It Ends in a Car Park
Epilogue: High Point Tally
Study Guide: Did You Read the Whole Book?
Acknowledgments

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