Sanctuaries from the Summer of Hate
We all need a break from time to time. In this summer of hate, a trip to New York, one of my favourite cities, seemed just the antidote to all the grim stuff going on in the old world. No matter that the spectre of the presidential elections hangs over America, I got the impression that New York was preoccupied with more urgent matters. Such as relieving tourists of their money, and staying cool in 35 degrees. Which perhaps explains why one of the best bits of our recent trip to New York was the day we spent escaping from it. Even then, it was difficult to ignore the politics, as I mentioned in my previous post.
Enough of all that. Time to write about some uplifting experiences for a change. What I didn’t mention last time was a train ride up the Eastern seaboard, past pasture, woodland, meticulously tended houses in small towns that eventually opened out to a series of wetlands, creeks and inlets. Beaches sparsely populated with vacationing families. And boats. Thousands of them. If we Brits think that as an island race we’re well stocked with boats, we should think again. The coastline from New York to Rhode Island quite possibly has more recreational boats than the whole of Britain put together.
I also didn’t mention our hosts for a day – the delightful family that has been coming to the little seaside town of Westerly for a century. Their great-grandparents built a large house on the shore of a lagoon, and it has remained in the family ever since – jointly owned by the descendants. Every summer, members of the family pitch up from neighbouring states – Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts – some for a few days, others for longer. During the day they go sailing or swimming in the lagoon. Young cousins climb trees in the large grounds or wander off into the woodland. In the evening the kids play cards, and the adults sit around – outside on the veranda or around the house – reading books.
They’re a Quaker family. They have a calm and respectful demeanour so impressive that if I should ever return to organised – or, as they might have it, unorganised – religion, it would probably be to the Society of Friends.
My only previous encounter with the Quaker ethos came from a time when as a student I worked in the summer holidays for Cadburys. The founding family created a village for their workers, with recreational facilities in the grounds of the factory. They were perhaps the archetypal benevolent employers of nineteenth century Britain. The company was gobbled up a decade ago by Kraft, but the Cadbury legacy is still in evidence from the cricket green next door to the factory, and the absence of pubs and liquor shops in Kings Norton, the Birmingham suburb they founded. The tree-lined streets and rows of neat little cottages are a reminder that corporate social responsibility was not invented in the late twentieth century.
The Quaker beliefs of non-violence, religious toleration and quiet contemplation that William Penn brought to America have spread beyond Pennsylvania over the past three hundred years. One of our hosts is farming land on the coast of New Jersey that has been in the family for almost all of that period. Deep roots indeed. After delving a little into the story of the founder of Pennsylvania, I wonder why no American production company hasn’t yet come up with a mini-series about him, such were the dramatic ups and downs of his life, and the profound effect he had on what subsequently became the United States.
But there was little evidence of Quaker calm in New York City, which was as raucous and in-your-face as ever. When we were there earlier this month, it was hot, humid and packed with foreigners like us. It was our first visit in July, and probably our last. Spring and autumn are more temperate times of the year.
There seemed an abnormally febrile atmosphere in the city. And that’s saying something in that edgiest of cities. More people than normal talking loudly to themselves on the streets. More beggars on the sidewalks, and more human casualties tottering through the crowds of tourists. More police, and in Penn Station, two burly marines in full armour guarding the entrance to our Amtrak platform. Was it the state of the economy, the heat, paranoia about terrorism, concerns about policing, or does everybody go slightly crazy in the heat of the summer?
Whatever the answer, I’ve never been a fan of wandering around Manhattan for the sake of it. Too noisy, too crowded. And you can keep all that Frank Sinatra, New York, New York stuff. But every visit brings delicious moments of difference which keep us coming back.
If there was one such moment this time around, it was a visit to The Cloisters. For me, no visit to the city is complete without stopping by a museum. The big ones – the Natural History Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the like – are pretty packed at this time of the year. But take the subway right up to the northern tip of Manhattan, and you will find a place so different from the rest of the city that you could be in Canada. Or southern France.
The Met Cloisters is a museum of medieval art and architecture. It sits on Washington Heights, a wooded, hilly outcrop that overlooks the Hudson River. Why, you might ask, would a Brit come to New York to view pieces of 13th Century France, Spain and Italy, when there are a thousand such treasures to choose from just across the Channel? A trite answer would be to point to the massive delays in Dover, the security lines at Heathrow and Gatwick, and the lurking presence of disturbed teenagers willing to murder priests in French churches.
But to know the real reason, you would need to visit The Cloisters for an afternoon after a few days of incessant traffic noise, of heat reflected from pavements and the constant efforts of guys trying to sell you tours of the city. It’s a respite.
The museum was built in the 1930s by John D Rockefeller Jr to house his collection of medieval artefacts – religious sculptures, windows, tapestries and devotional treasures. The actual buildings include a number of structures from monasteries reassembled and integrated into the buildings. There are four cloisters and two chapels, each housing a variety of works of art.
Within the cloisters are gardens that contain an approximation of the plants and flowers that were widely cultivated in medieval monasteries – as medicines, for food and for decoration. When we were there, many of them were in full flower – a real treat.
The museum has an aura of quiet that seems to radiate from the ancient stonework. It’s perhaps a commentary on the state of Europe at the time, that these works of art and pieces of crumbled monasteries were allowed to be exported from their countries of origin. Today, it’s inconceivable that a wealthy art collector could purchase a monastery or a priceless tapestry and transport them to the New World without cries of outrage at the despoliation of national heritage. A hundred years ago, people in high places cared less about such things.
But as a result, you can go to The Cloisters and see art and architecture from across Western Europe, all in one place, and all in an afternoon. Great if you don’t have the time or the inclination to traipse across four or five European countries in search of examples in situ.
Because the museum is somewhat off the beaten track, it wasn’t crowded. It’s set in large grounds, and if you arrive by public transport you have a bit of a hike up hill and down dale to get there – another reason why it has the feel of a sanctuary. But not just a sanctuary for tourists. Seated around some of the exhibits were groups of children – black, white, Asian, Hispanic – enthralled by young group leaders talking about the meaning of the art. Kids from the city learning about unicorn mythology.
The Cloisters was a joy, especially if, like me, you tire of the streets and the endless crowds.
There are other aspects of New York that make the city always worth a visit – the food, the shops, the theatre and the fabulous skyline. We had a taste of all of these, as we have on previous visits. But it’s also nice to bring back memories of places that that are the antithesis of the busy city – a trip to New England and a few hours in an urban haven.
America is, after all, more than its cities, and its cities are more than its streets. Most important of all, America is more than its politics.