The first stop was Blenheim Palace, which I knew next to nothing about when we arrived. The only thing that I knew was what my professor had told us before we left - that it was Winston Churchill's birthplace, and that it was a big house. He wasn't kidding when he said that it was a big house. Blenheim Palace belongs to the Duke of Marlborough, who still lives in it with his family, so the tour only goes through part of the house. The first Duke of Marlborough led the British troops to victory at the Battle of Blenheim in the beginning of the nineteenth century and his reward was this estate. The first duchess, Sarah, was actually pretty tight with Queen Anne, and from what I understand, kind of had her say in how the government was run until she and the queen had a falling out. Our tour guide, who was interesting and full of fun facts, promised that Sarah was an incredibly interesting woman and when I left Blenheim Palace, I left with a giant hardbound biography of Sarah that I plan to tackle this summer.
It's difficult to describe Blenheim Palace in brief, without going into all kinds of detail on how much I love castles and other impressive homes, but suffice to say that I was floored. There's a dining room in the palace that was painted by a French artist, and while we were gaping at the ceiling, our tour guide dropped the bomb that the moldings around the ceiling weren't actually real - they were two dimensional illusions. I think I actually gasped, probably muttering a "Shut up!" in that uniquely American way. The rest of the rooms that we were able to see were equally grand, as were the gardens, but it was the dining room that really stayed with me. I checked out a family tree to see if there are any dukes-to-be that appeared unmarried and relatively close to my age, in hopes of securing an invitation to the annual Christmas dinner in that dining room. No luck in the direct lineage, but there appears to be a cousin who's a year older than me. I don't remember your name, but if you're reading this, feel free to look me up.
The other big event of the day was our trip to Stonehenge. I do have an important anecdote to tell to explain the importance behind my visit to Stonehenge. My mom went to England when she was in high school, with her choir from church, which was First Baptist Church of Tulsa, Oklahoma. I think she was about 15 years old. They saw a lot of things in England, and sang some performances, but one of the memories that she always recounted to me was of her being in the bus, driving through the English countryside, and seeing a familiar structure off the side of the highway. "Uhhh...isn't that Stonehenge?" she asked one of the chaperones on the trip. "Oh, that? I don't think that's very important." And they kept driving. Past Stonehenge. They didn't even stop on the side of the road to take photographs.
Fortunately, we stopped when we drove past Stonehenge, and it was pretty incredible to see. Honestly, it wasn't as big as I thought that it was, but that didn't make it disappointing. It's still huge, and it's still amazing that it was built so long ago. What most people don't know is that Stonehenge is situated in the middle of the Salisbury Plain and that it is literally one of the windiest places I have ever experienced. I'm from the Windy City, and granted, Chicago didn't earn that nickname originally based on the wind, but Chicago really is quite a windy place. I'd never felt a constant barrage of gusts like I did when we were fighting our way around Stonehenge. We stayed for about half an hour and it was pretty great, but I felt like there was only so much time I could spend looking at rocks, and besides, my camera died when we were only about a third of the way around. I was grateful for the refuge of the bus.
Salisbury Cathedral was our last stop before we returned to London, but after the incredible cathedrals of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's, it was a little underwhelming. Its size is impressive, even taller than St. Paul's, but the church was dark and most of the stained glass had been removed by an architect assigned with the task of modernizing the church in the nineteenth century. We also had one of the worst tour guides I've ever listened to. Sweet lady, but I'm not sure that leading a group of American students around a cathedral was the best job for her, and after a full day, I was ready to get back on the bus and recommence napping on the way back to London.
After an afternoon that was dedicated to some much-needed relaxing, we returned to the Globe that evening for the opening night of Othello. We'd read it the previous week in class, but I was still a little nervous, because I didn't feel completely comfortable with it yet, and I worried that I would have trouble following it. My worries were not needed, though, because the play was performed wonderfully and even though I was standing against the back right corner of the stage and often saw the action from behind the actors, I understood everything perfectly. My one complaint, though, was for my feet! Standing for an hour before we got in, plus standing for the four hours that it took for everyone to kill each other off, as is the trend in Shakespearian tragedies, on feet that had been traipsing around London for four days, was brutal, to put it mildly. By the last half hour, I was silently pleading with Othello to just pick up the sword and start killing people. I survived, though, and despite the incredible pain in my feet, I enjoyed seeing a traditional performance of one of Shakespeare's masterpieces, just as it was performed there four hundred years ago.
Two days later, on Sunday, we left London and arrived in Stratford in time for a matinee performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Swan Theatre. Completely different from the production of Othello, I was not at all prepared for the liberties that they took with Shakespeare! To begin, only about half of the lines were given in the original English. The program said that the rest of the lines were given in a mixture of South Asian languages, and I assumed them to be Indian dialects, but I was never sure. This is one of my pet peeves - I hate when people refer to things like "Indian" and "African" as if they are languages, not geographical references to large numbers of ethnic groups. The play was infused with modern dance, and while the choreography was interesting, including some elaborate routines that involved acrobatics off of the sets and from ropes that hung over the stage, I found it distracting. Combined with the fact that it wasn't entirely in English, I thought that the experience was interesting and definitely not something that I would have attended at home, but I preferred the traditional production of Othello, sore feet and all.
The next day, Monday, was spent in Stratford-upon-Avon. We spent the morning visiting several of the Shakespearian attractions. We went to his birthplace, Holy Trinity Church (where he and his family are buried), Anne Hathaway's cottage, and Mary Arden's house. I wanted to hate most of it, since I thought it was ridiculous that Anne Hathaway's cottage and Mary Arden's house were included as historical sites. Anne Hathaway only lived in the cottage before she married Shakespeare, obviously, and the now sixteen-room home only had two rooms when she actually lived there. But when we arrived, I was struck by the beauty of the traditional thatched-roof cottage and especially, by the incredible garden, full of tulips and other brightly coloured flowers. Mary Arden was Shakespeare's mother, and her house and the adjacent farm were, obviously, only her home before Shakespeare was even born. I wanted to hate that, too, because they were siphoning off all of this money from tourists when it was hardly even a legitimate claim. However, they had done a lot to keep it unique. It featured a working farm, and even several people in costume, demonstrating different things on the farm, like traditional food preparation. It was all very interesting, but a sudden rainstorm sent us running for the bus, and although I had a good time, I was happy to return to the town.
Stratford is a lovely town that has flourished because of the Shakespeare tourism draw, but overall, the town does not seem like a typical tourist trap. Although there are a lot of people and a handful of the typical fast food restaurants, the downtown area was lovely, and there was a wide variety of interesting shops. And - I found a café that served Brie sandwiches, and really, that is one of the quickest ways to my heart, besides chocolate chip cookies, which were nowhere to be found in England.
After all of this, I have to admit that I was a little Shakespeared out, but it was a great experience, and certainly not something I probably would have done if I had gone completely on my own. If nothing else, it was worth it for the fish'n'chips we were served for dinner on Sunday night after the play.
I was sure of this, that is, until I visited St. Paul's.
The church is beautiful from the outside, but I was not at all prepared for how breathtaking the interior would be. I've seen some wonderful cathedrals, but they have been, for the most part, of the Gothic style. Gothic cathedrals are lovely, but they are dark and often feel very enclosed. St. Paul's was built after London's Great Fire in 1666, so it is a much newer building, and of the Neoclassical style. Made of lighter coloured stone, the interior is much brighter and it is physically larger and more open than the great Gothic cathedrals, but the difference feels like night and day - literally. St. Paul's continued to draw my gaze upwards, towards the enormous dome and the mosaics. When we entered the church, an official was inviting everyone to pray the "Our Father" prayer in their own languages, and the sound was beautiful. Although I belong to a denomination that does not usually use set prayers, I know the words, and whispered them along with the visitors from different nations. The feeling of peace that this action created was incredible, and I think the calm I felt from that moment carried through the rest of my visit.
We wandered around the church, visiting the memorial to the American soldiers that died in the Second World War, and I cried a bit, as I always do at war memorials. Then my entire group, twelve students and a professor, climbed 162 stairs to the Whispering Gallery, which goes around the dome on the inside of the building, about halfway up. I hadn't planned to go all the way to the top, but in a strange moment of bravery, I convinced myself that I needed to do this, to complete my visit to St. Paul's. Perhaps it was the peace that I felt earlier that compelled me to follow my classmates into another impossibly tight stairwell. There are almost 500 steps in all, from the cathedral floor to the Golden Gallery, which is an outdoor gallery at the very top of the dome. I was doing well until the stone staircases transitioned into metal, tightly spiraling staircases, the kind with spaces between the steps. I was dizzy and short of breath when I finally made it to the top, but I felt a sense of accomplishment, even pride. I surveyed the city of London from a bird's-eye perspective and even though scores of people had done this before me, I felt like I had completed some sort of pivotal milestone. So I snapped a photo of myself, looking terrified, and then I tried to hold my nerves together while I waited for the slowly shuffling pack in front of me to reach the staircases. For the record...those creepy spiral staircases are even worse on the way down, but I lived to tell the tale, and I'm even glad that I conquered my fear for a moment and went to the top of St. Paul's.
I’m writing this in my hotel room in
I’m not currently online, since I don’t want to waste my valuable internet time, but I think I mentioned in yesterday’s brief blog that the highlights thus far have been
Westminster Abbey was in a different realm from
Since I have plenty of time this afternoon, I’ll also mention the visit to the
Overall, the experience here has been incredible. I’ve spent a bit of time on my own, since I know that my nerdy tendencies aren’t universally shared, but I don’t mind being adventurous. Yesterday during my lunch, instead of eating with the group, I wandered into several used bookshops, one of which featured leather-bound volumes of classics, all of which were at least a couple of hundred years old. I was afraid to touch them, but they covered an entire wall. It was amazing to see something like that for sale in a regular store, with a standard selection of used paperback copies of history texts from the 60’s downstairs. That’s one of the most compelling things about being here – the incredible age of everything. In
We still have over half the trip ahead of us, with all of the sights that we’ll see outside of
I loved Greenwich! It's a wonderful little town with shops and restaurants and it's touristy, but not as obnoxiously catered to Americans as many parts of London seem to be. Westminster Abbey was incredible, too. It was one of the places I was most looking forward to seeing and it definitely did not disappoint. I need to head back to the hotel so I don't miss the trek to the British Museum, but I wanted to check in, since I know people are reading. I can't wait until I have time to write about everything!