London, Bath, Windsor; scones with clotted cream and misty moors; gentleman smoking pipes among billows of factory smoke; women with curls dancing waltzes.
England is, for many of us, a legendary land. Along with Jane Austin’s romantic heroines; the grimy slums of Charles Dickens; and the bombings of World War II, rise older, more mystic images: King Arthur and the Code of Chivalry, the elusive Stonehenge, castles and boiling oil, and – of course – the Holy Grail.
Despite my now having been on British soil, England’s mystery has not dimmed for me. I’ve seen London, I’ve seen Windsor, I’ve seen the English countryside. But even so, England escaped me; I couldn’t grasp it. History is something we can study, but never possess. The voices have already faded, and the buildings have shut themselves up into the secrets of those who lived and breathed in them.
We began our tour with the Tower of London, the site of so many senseless beheadings, kidnappings, and mysterious disappearances. The stories are terrifying to any decent human being – people display an astonishing capacity for brutality. And when in power, evil people have an amplified platform from which to commit atrocities.
In St. Peter’s Chapel within the Tower, I sat only feet away from the grave of Lady Jane Grey, one of my most beloved heroines – a 17 year old who was executed along with her young husband under a false charge of treason due to the ambitions of her relatives. She was a profound Christian and an extremely intelligent young woman.
After the grimness of the Tower, the sacredness and wholeness of Westminster Abbey was illuminating – it filled me with light. I felt as if I was being buoyed up and lifted straight to Heaven. The pulpit to the right of where we were singing was inscribed with the words: “Attempt great things for God.” As we quietly absorbed Evensong, basking in the strains of music that drifted to the ceiling and the priest’s melodious voice, I was surrounded and wrapped up in Eternity.
St. Paul’s Cathedral took my breath away. I can’t describe it; there aren’t words beautiful or expressive enough to capture the incredible grandeur of the place. Picture-taking is forbidden within the Cathedral, and it’s better that way. What is sacred should be kept sacred. You must physically be in the Cathedral to absorb the magnificent immensity of Whispering Gallery, with the dome rising above you and statues of the saints – Jerome, Augustine, Gregory – surrounding you. The builders of the Cathedral sacrificed time, strength and creativity to construct something for which they would never get glory – we don’t know their names or the sacrifices they made to participate in this great work. But they counted the Creator of the Universe worthy of the sacrifice.
The next stop was Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, built in the late 20th century as the third Globe (the first burned down in the Great Fire and the second was torn down by the puritans). We bought tickets for a Mexican version of “Much Ado About Nothing” and settled down to watch Shakespeare in the context of Revolutionary Mexico. Scores of people clustered in front of the stage to watch the entire performance standing, just like the riffraff of Shakespeare’s day. Fortunately, these standers were not drunk and filthy like those of the 16th and 17th centuries. It was believed in those days that chewing garlic prevented one from catching the plague…
Paddington Station, Friday. After boarding the train and chugging through the English countryside to Windsor, we caught a cab to Convent Court, a renovated convent transformed into a set of apartments.
The next morning we drove to Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, the birth of Winston Churchill and the home of his uncle. The palace breathes with dignity; we walked through room after room of grandeur, gazing at family portraits, luxuries oddities, and faded tapestries. But when we stepped into the library, I was overwhelmed. It felt as if I had stepped into Beauty and the Beast – tiers of books, shelves of books, rows of books of different languages and colors and sizes stretched along the walls invitingly. And at the end of the long, airy room, a grand organ rose in majestic taciturnity until melting into an alcove. Our guide explained that Churchill, who visited the Palace often and struggled with insomnia, used to ensconce himself in an armchair by the fireplace and read into the wee hours of the night.
On Sunday we toured Windsor Castle, the perfect fairy-tale fortress. Begun by William the Conqueror in 1070 and improved throughout the centuries, Windsor Castle has been the home of England’s monarchs ever since its construction. Its luxuriance was overwhelming; its opulence stifled and dazzled me. As Anne of Green Gables said, such richness “leaves no room for the imagination.” My imagination had become reality, and I didn’t know how to handle the incarnation.
On Monday we boarded the train to Bath and spent the morning peeking into Bath abbey and touring the Roman baths. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that two thousand years ago the Romans had walked on the stones my feet were touching, breathing in the same space where I was breathing. One of the exhibits that impressed me most with the strange distance between the Romans and I were the “curses” of the ancients – imprecations against suspects of theft or other wrongdoers inscribed on led and tossed into the baths in the hopes of obtaining justice from Sulis Minerva, the goddess of the water. The Romans wrote curses for crimes as little as the theft of a bathing tunic, begging Sulis Minerva to take revenge on the miscreant who had dared to rob them of their possessions.
We commenced the afternoon with an authentic English tea at the Pump Room, complete with a live pianist and a three-layered tray of tea sandwiches, scones, and darling little desserts. And at the end of the day, we relaxed in a spa, refreshing ourselves in naturally-heated water just as the ancient Romans did.
But despite my enjoyment of the tea and the bath, I still remember vividly the grave plaques lining the walls of Bath Abbey:
Here lies the body of Mrs. Hannah Alleyne, wife of Thomas Alleyne Esqr. of the Island of Barbades. How amiable of the many virtues she possessed!
But none more religiously exemplary, than in the exercise of her patience and entire resignation to the divine will during a tedious and painful illness which she bore with a truly Christian fortitude, and died as sincerely lamented as she was beloved.
Or another (edited for the sake of legibility):
Near this place are deposited the remains of the most noble Jane Marchioness of Ely…Endued with unaffected piety, unassuming manners and unostentatious benevolence. She manifested in her life an eminent example of religion, meekness and charity, and in her death of patience, tranquility and resignation, esteemed and regretted by those who knew her, beloved and lamented by those connected with her.
No, I am not morbid. But I do believe that studying gravestones can be an edifying exercise. In the midst of the excitement of seeing new places, it is crucial to refocus, to remember that in the end, all human accomplishment will cease and only that which is done in Christ’s name will endure.
I’ve been thinking about the concept of travel recently – its purpose and how to do it well. If we go merely as sightseers, if we merely want a sensation, I think we’re missing something. I’ve traveled quite a bit in the past year, and I’ve come to realize that travel for its own sake is empty. Travelling, just like all endeavors, must be a search for Truth. It should give us new perspective, guiding us to eternity by reminding us how rich, deep, and fragile is this world and its history.