“Hey, do you want to go on a bus trip with us to Cambridge to see the Dickens Victorian Village? It’s a guided tour.  You will meet lots of new people!”  So said Michelle, my editor. “And besides, you will probably get a story out of it for the 65 and Single Again column.”  What the hey, I thought.  I’ve not done anything like this since………I can’t remember when.  Probably in college I took a Greyhound bus back to Athens from Cleveland. That was the last time I was on a modern over-the-road type bus, and that was close to 50 years ago.

Charles Dickens, who was he, you ask.  Oh, so you’ve been spending too much time out in the barn milking cows eh? Or maybe playing too much with the X-Box computer games.   Does Bob Cratchett or Tiny Tim ring a bell…….oh yeah,  THAT Dickens who wrote “A Christmas Carol” back in 18 and 50 something.  Dickens created some of the world’s most well-known fictional characters and is generally regarded as the greatest Victorian Writer.  We had to read his works back in high school. Probably you did too.  Now you remember.  Sure I’ll go. Besides, there are bound to be some interesting people to meet on the bus.

The trip schedule was as follows:

Depart Garrettsville 8 AM

1st stop – McDonald’s in Cambridge to pick up the guide 

for the day—also coffee break

2nd stop – Dickens museum approx. 10 AM

3rd stop – shop on Main Street 

4th – eat lunch at restaurant 12:30 PM

5th – visit bulk food store and shop

6th – visit Episcopal Church

7th – shop a bit/nap in bus

8th – light show on the courthouse

Drive home, estimated return, 9 PM

So we set off on the bus at 8 AM from Sky Lanes in Garrettsville and headed for Cambridge which is about 2 hours away, including a rest stop.  There were about 34 of us on the tour.  I only knew about 3 people—the staff from the newspaper.  The rest were new to me.  As happens in unfamiliar situations you study the dynamics of the group on the bus, the people around you, and the persistent person behind you who feels the need to fill you in on every nuance and detail of the various people on the bus.  You note, perhaps, some interesting individuals and make a mental note to try and strike up a conversation with these certain folks. The back of the bus was the more vocal area; People seemed to be having a good time, laughing and such.  Also in the back of the bus is a bathroom.  It consists of a wooden bench with a hole in it and you could see the road going by through the hole……………..NO, NO, NO! I’m confusing it with a train ride from the 1920s.  Actually it was a very nice setup much like an airliner bathroom. I didn’t realize busses these days had such amenities and that certainly goes a long way toward alleviating certain fears about being trapped in a confined space……well, for some of us anyway.

We picked up our guide at the McDonald’s just at the edge of town. She was dressed in 1850s period clothing and served as the director for the affairs of the day. She explained how the whole Dickensonian concept came about for Cambridge and what they have done to enlarge it.  Cambridge is a quaint 1850s town with distinctly English architecture. It is about the size of Ravenna. Most of the buildings are well- preserved, including a marvelous 1850s courthouse.  I have noted many other similar courthouses in central and southern Ohio, all built in that era. Very fortunately they have survived modernization or being torn down like so many up north.  They are real jewels. 

Our tour guide explained that at the turn of the new century (2000) a group of townspeople and businessmen, recognizing the English heritage of Cambridge, got together, planned and implemented a Dickens Christmas theme that encompassed the whole downtown.  This, they surmised, would bring in business.  They decked out the downtown in Edwardian style with over 180 Dickensonian life-size manikins in various scenes lining the sidewalks and in shop windows.  These scenes depict real life situations of the time, such as a photographer taking a picture, groups caroling, people standing on a corner, and sitting on a bench. These are all lifelike manikins with fairly realistic faces.   But there are also various real people dressed in the period clothing walking about.  More than once I had the BeJesus scared out of me by a manikin that began talking to me and moved like a human. I wondered if Father Christmas was responsible for any heart attacks or strokes. 

As you can see by the schedule, there was plenty of time built in for shopping—this I’m sure to encourage the anticipated consequence of people visiting this Dickensian Town.  The pinnacle of the whole adventure was a simply wonderful, almost indescribable light show on the Courthouse, all choreographed to classical Christmas music.  The whole effect is perhaps best described as like watching a rapid fire Fourth of July Fireworks display. It was worth the trip to see this.

So, in between the various Dickens activities we shopped and ate.  There are a number of pubs along the shopping routes up and down the city block.  I don’t know why I mention that but I think that at least a few took advantage of it. Certainly the effects seemed more notable on the way back to Garrettsville, and not necessarily in a bad way. More on that in a bit.

We visited an Episcopal Church that was styled like, and likely built in, the 1850s.  We sat in the pews and listened to a short, staunch, pokerfaced elderly woman with a distinct English accent stand in the pulpit and dryly relate the history of the church. I wondered if she too was an actor trying to look Dickensonian or if it indeed was just her everyday manner of dress. I think the latter.  She then asked if anyone in the group might come up and play the massive pipe organ.  No one could or would. The thought crossed my mind to volunteer to go up and play chopsticks but I thought better of it.  Then she urged the group to sing a few Christmas Carols.  This was all well and good, mind you, but some of the group seemed to not feel particularly Christmassy, or more likely, not confident in their a Capella singing abilities.  Others were feeling…….something else, possibly courtesy of the pubs! We attempted “Silent Night”.  I say attempted because it would not be fair to say that we accomplished “Silent Night” in anything resembling harmony! Possibly it was not even recognizable. Then she said, “Let’s try Joy to the World.”  Whereupon I broke out laughing – thinking immediately of the Three Dog Night rendition– “Joy to the World, –all the boys and girls, joy to the fishes…” and how completely out of time and place that would be. Apparently that thought instantly escaped my mind and came out my mouth because I looked up and everyone was looking back at me.  A little more verbosity than I had anticipated I guess.  Though the moment didn’t translate well I doubt if the old English lady had any idea who Three Dog Night was.  All in all, the church people were nice; they fed us cookies and scones.  Per chance do you know what scones are?  Well, I know a little about English scones.  My wife’s grandparents were very English, having been born in England back in the late 1800s.  They had lots of English traditions, and they cooked typical English food.  Some of it was very good, some was…….not.   Grandma Nellie regularly used to make scones and bring them over often.  How to describe them?  The words that come to mind are white hockey pucks with jelly on them.  The ones that they served at the church though looked a lot better than those in my memory. They were soft and folded and you could make little jelly sandwiches with them. With Nellie’s you scored goals. I choked them down though to be nice and keep the peace. But I digress.

After the fabulous light show we began the two hour trip back home. Now if I remember back to high school days and trips back home from, say, a football game, things were, shall we say, more relaxed.  People talked a little more, sang a little more, and were generally more uninhibited. For example, it always took me that long to work up the courage to talk to a particular girl. Isn’t it funny that 50-60 years separates the experiences but the same thing happens with us 50 plus people? Even though we couldn’t seem to muster up the wherewithal to sing some Christmas Carols in the church, the group in the back of the bus at some point started belting out some Christmas songs. Gradually, song choices degenerated a bit as they launched into “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.” Everybody seemed to know the words perfectly though.  Then they belted out “Joy to the World –All the boys and girls, joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea…”  Of course the finale was that greatest of all German Christmas Carols, “I wish I was an Oscar Meyer Weiner , –That is what I really want to be, Cause if I was an Oscar Meyer Weiner, Everyone would take a bite of me”.  

 It was a grand trip.  I will do it again but I’m sitting in the back next time and going shopping with that group.

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Skip Schweitzer, of Mantua, can be described from early on in life as an avid outdoorsman and old car restorer and aficionado. He comes from a long line of great lakes fishermen and hunters. He is a taxidermist and a retired psychologist. His grandfather Charles, a machinist and fisherman who fed his family with fish during the Great Depression, was one of the original auto restorers at the Thompson Auto Museum, now the Crawford Auto Aviation Museum. Skip learned to hunt, fish and restore cars from his father Roy and learned the value and appreciation of antique automobiles from his grandfather. Skip has, over the years, restored upwards of 25 automobiles including many Fords, Studebakers, Buicks, Jeeps and VWs. Skip has written extensively on automobiles and outdoors for several newspapers, magazines and auto publications this past 20 years. His current antique automobiles include a 1930 Ford Model “A”, and a 1970 Volkswagen Cabriolet. Skip’s most frequent bylines are, Outdoors With Skip, and The Old Road.