May 8, 2007

On Tuesday, we left Stratford-upon-Avon and returned to London by way of a few stops. Although much of the day was spent on a bus, this was probably my favourite day on the trip. Late in our tour, the bus trip was just what I needed, and a day that is spent alternating between napping and visiting historical sites is a good day indeed.

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.

1 comment:

Mom said...

The Stonehenge anecdote is really true, in case anyone is wondering. Kind of a testament to the priorities of middle-aged adults from Tulsa, Oklahoma during the 1970's, I suppose. They were really sweet people, but I'm pretty sure that they had never even heard of Stonehenge, or of anything else of historical note in all of Europe, either. Related to the story is the fact that, although I visited Spain and France several times after my trip to England in 1973, I never did return to England and thus never visited Stonehenge. My life isn't over, though, and so perhaps one day I'll get there, but in the meantime, my daughter's visit, descriptions, and pictures will have to suffice!