The first week of my semester in London was spent touring around Europe with other students from the University of Wisconsin. These few days were spent walking, listening, and soaking up parts of the world that I never imagined I would see. Not only was it a lot of fun, but it also gave me a deeper understanding of the rich history of England.
London is one of the most modern and advanced cities in the world. This makes it doubly important to listen to the whispers of past centuries now buried beneath the towers we build.
To truly explain this experience I am presenting it in three short windows. The first is pictures and personal accounts of each place we visited, the second is the legends and architectural history that I loved the most, and the third is drawings from my sketchbook and why I chose to sit and examine different spots.
In the midst of travel it is hard to gain perspective on the experience as a whole, Augustine of Hippo is quoted saying “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” Working within this metaphor I could then say that those who travel don’t know the end of the story until the book is over.
Now that I have moved in to my dorm in London I find myself able to take a deep breath and think about the study tour, in other words, I am able to take a step back. London, of course, is a whole other story for another day…right now it is time to examine the past week and half, condense it, and find the most essential parts to share with the world.
Triptych I: Pictures and Personal Accounts
“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
Jack Kerouac, On the Road
It started as my plane touched down on the tarmac of Heathrow, Britain’s biggest airport. I was travelling by myself at this point because I was leaving from Boston instead of Chicago. I was exhausted. Luckily, my plane landed two hours before the rest of my group was scheduled to arrive. This meant that I had a chance to get coffee, flat white, and change out of my travelling clothes. Then I waited. Unfortunately I was waiting at the wrong terminal. Forty minutes late to meet my group I figured it out and ran to the train that would take me to the right place. Oops!
It all worked out okay and we loaded up a bus with our luggage and took off into London for a long awaited breakfast. The place we went is called The Ostrich Inn, the third oldest pub in the UK dating back to 1106 when it was a coaching inn next to fields and hills. This historic building was beautiful in fachwerk, timber beams, stone fireplaces, and crooked stairs. They even had a stuffed ostrich upstairs…but I doubt that is an 1106 original.
The traditional English breakfast is eggs, bacon (what we would call ham), cooked mushrooms and tomatoes, beans, and, of course, tea.
After breakfast we boarded the bus once more and headed to that world famous site: Stonehenge.
“My first impression was Wisconsin. The surrounding fields look like Wisconsin. Then suddenly there it was-the henge and standing stones. Like out of a postcard. Never have I see something so ancient-I could feel the power of that place somewhere deep in my chest…” Journal Excerpt
The audio tour of the site involved holding a device up to your ear and pressing buttons to correspond with posted signs, apparently this is a very common type of tour-by the end of the trip we did about six. Stonehenge has been a fascination for as long as it has been standing. Looking up at the massive rocks I understood why.
Standing there and looking at this famous monument it finally hit me that I was, in fact, not in the US anymore. It is a strange feeling to stand in the presence of a place that you hear about so often in textbooks and TV shows. In my mind Stonehenge has always been cool, but when I was actually there it became exponentially more impressive, and every fact stuck in my mind more than information from a history class ever could.
I can’t stop imagining what these different places were like in pre-history, history, and modern days. I look down a street and can see it with cars, with carriages, with ladies and gentlemen promenading like peacocks for a mate, with worshipers, Romans, and with peasants. In no place was this vision as clear as in The City of Bath.
Bath is my favorite city in England (so far). It is my favorite because the layers of history that fill in the city blocks are so distinct from each other. It amazes me that a warm prehistoric mud hole can rapidly become elegant roman baths which were lost and rediscovered to be used by the gentry of the 19th century. This place is a kaleidoscope of lost and beautiful things. Best of all, it still contains pieces of its past in this modern world.
Day two started with a walking tour of the city, it was wonderful to have someone point out and explain hidden stories of the town that I would otherwise miss. The tour ended at the Sally Lunn House, the oldest medieval home in Bath, which still serves the famous Sally Lunn Bun. I had tea and a cranberry brie bun. The cranberry brie combination is one that I brought back with me from New Zealand. Sitting in that restaurant, in England, drinking English tea, I closed my eyes and was transported back to Aotearoa. I’ve noticed that these experiences blur at the edges, I can’t seem to live in England without seeing New Zealand everywhere I look.
After lunch was an audio tour of the roman baths.
“I will never forget how absolutely amazing those roman baths are…the engineering of the place [fascinated me], first by the Romans who created the water system, and second by the archaeologists who preserved them. My heart aches to think that we will no longer have beautiful structures like these to build, now all that is here is left to decay on the face of this world.” Journal Excerpt
Even after filling my mind with the wonder of these ancient places, small things like watching the sun set by the river Avon while eating a fruit tart or spending the night out on the town with new friends are memories just as amazing and memorable from the tour.
Day three started out sunny. It was left in the schedule as flexible time for us to find things that interest us individually. After going for my morning run I set off to find Beckford’s Tower which rises six stories over the top of on of the seven hills surrounding Bath. I can understand why Beckford wanted that room for himself high in the sky. The view was amazing. From that distance you can clearly see how the town sits in a bowl created by surrounding hills. It looked like a toy town under a painted sky.
By early afternoon I was holding a Cornish pastry and wandering around those crooked streets. Eventually those sandy buildings led me to the Assembly Rooms and Fashion Museum. Once again, while in that building looking up at those priceless chandeliers I could picture how it used to be, how exhilarating it must have been for a young girl to arrive hoping to meet the love of her life.
The Fashion Museum was surprisingly cool. Usually fashion is not my topic of choice, but this day I walked around with my eyes wide open fascinated by the history that was laid out in glass cases. How people dress and how people build their homes are one in the same, it is all about comfort, appearance, and social constraints of the time.
I was actually a little sad to be leaving Bath, but I didn’t have much time to think about it because we moved swiftly on to Salisbury, a medieval gem in the English countryside. This 13th century town has worn many colors over the years, it became an important Saxon site with a mint around 500 AD, later was a Norman settlement, then important in the wool trade and beer making. It is also the birthplace of my favorite saint legend: St. George and the Dragon.
The walking tour of this city was highly informative but most of what I remember is fachwerk houses butting up against medieval stone walls. At some point we were told a local legend saying that in a 1920’s renovation of a pub downtown a severed human hand dating to the 1800’s was found behind a fireplace still holding playing cards as if he was in the middle of a game and was suddenly found a cheater.
Salisbury was lovely but the star of that day was the Salisbury Cathedral. They started building it in 1220 and finished in 1258. Outside in the grassy area around the Cathedral, called a close, and throughout the Cathedral were beautiful flowing statues by German artist Helaine Blumenfled as part of a series aptly named “Messenger of the Spirit”.
“A view that has stuck in my mind is that of looking out onto a grassy courtyard from the surrounding corridor. Open Gothic arches and trefoil let light in-the grass was even and low wrapping seamlessly around a giant tree. A white marble stature stands out from the plain sandy stone of the opposite wall whose open arches continue in even rhythm.” –Journal Excerpt
In an interview about her work Helaine reportedly said, “Carlos Fuentes wrote about man having lost his place in the scale of things…Art is there to remind man of his spirituality.”
After Salisbury we had the chance to look back in history by visiting Old Sarum, the hilltop castle that was a precursor to the settlement in the valley.
As the story goes, on top of the hill was a defensive fort, castle, and a cathedral. The hilltop provided excellent protection and visibility when this was a more dangerous area to inhabit. During peacetime the monks got tired of constant noise from the soldiers and decided to move the cathedral into the valley, taking a lot of the stones from the first cathedral with them. Now the City of Salisbury is buzzing with activity and Old Sarum is a ruin on a hill.
Winchester cathedral is a building full of sadness. I could practically feel misery radiating off the walls in this ancient place. It must have been majestic in its prime, colorful, elegantly carved and painted. Now, still beautiful, it is burdened with years of trial and wear. In 642 Saint Berinus established the first cathedral on the same ground, the building which now stands was built in 1079, making it even more ancient than Salisbury, and the oldest building I have ever stepped foot inside.
On this wall in the North Transcript you can clearly see how the design of the Cathedral has changed over time. The rounded roman arches sit on top of perpendicular Gothic style arches, mastery of stonework abruptly changes from rough to exquisite, and detailing shifts dramatically. The space was patched together over hundreds of years to create a room that is architecturally unique: a layered cake of stereotypical building styles.
The most amazing thing about this visit was the trip we took into the Crypt. A short series of steps in the North Transcript led us down to the foundation of the cathedral. This beautiful low vaulted space contains the oldest parts of the already ancient cathedral, including a well that was probably the first construction, a few stone sarcophagus, some priceless stone statues, and many dimly lit winding passages.
After lunch Caitlin and I wandered around Winchester looking for the Abbey Gardens. The gardens were lovely, but the most fantastic discovery of the day were the ruins of Wolvesey Castle! Wolvesey has been the residence of the immensely powerful and wealthy Bishops of Winchester since Anglo-Saxon times. What remains today is an extensive ruin. Ruined places like this one capture my imagination like no completed work ever could. My fascination is one half curiosity: why would such a loved place end up like this? What did it look like before? And one half awe: this ruin is older than almost everything in the US, this ruin has seen kings, battles, feasts, and generations of use before my mothers mother walked the earth. We spent around an hour here sketching and writing before heading back for dinner.
The vibrant seaside town of Brighton is lovely, chic, and modern, but most of our time here was spent at the Royal Pavilion. At first glance this 18th century building is completely out of place. At second glance, it still is out of palace.
This ‘pleasure palace’ was built under the direction of John Nash for the Prince Regent (George IV). George was a man of extravagant tastes and this building reflects his essence perfectly. Everything is overdone, gilded, carved, painted, and decorated. It is said that dinner at the Pavilion was more of a theatrical display and that parties often ran until the small hours of the morning. Now the Pavilion has been restored close to its original beauty, but that was not always the case. From 1850 until the end of the Second World War the pavilion was used as assembly rooms, dance halls, political gathering space, offices, and place for celebration. During this time it fell into disrepair until finally the restoration began. Now the pavilion is decorated with many original pieces on permanent loan from Queen Elizabeth and is still being restored to its original glamour.
“George’s palace was truly awe inspiring…but I must admit that I would have rather visited in the 1800’s when the place was a total wreck and you could scramble all over it. Personal Preference.” –Journal Excerpt
After lunch I spent my free time on the shore of the English Channel playing around in the water, then we all went for a walk down the Brighton Pier. Around 4:30 it was time to hop back on the coach and make for London.
The sun was setting as we crossed Tower Bridge illuminating the Thames, London Eye, and Parliament. The study tour was over, but another adventure is about to begin.
Triptych II: Legends and Architectural History
“The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”
-Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Every city was like this, containing its past like the lines of a hand. Walking down any unassuming street you are be bound to run into something old and meaningful. Sometimes these artifacts are celebrated with a plaque or a sign, but sometimes they just exist with nothing to tell the wandering stranger that they are passing by a thing both ancient and steeped in local legend.
During the 2013 fall England study tour the University of Wisconsin group visited some of the most historic towns and sites in southern England. When first walking into a new place there is the feeling which was discussed in the first section, but then there is the facts and figures, the intricate story of each place that was described to everyone at length. This section is about that second half of the experience.
What is Stonehenge? This question has prompted so many different answers over the course of its history. So what is it? A temple? Healing center? Calendar? Burial site? Evidence of extraterrestrial life? This prehistoric monument is shrouded in mystery which continues to become more, not less, obscure. Evidence of human cremation and burial has been found, adding credence to the theory of Stonehenge as a burial ground. Archaeologists have been able to date the circular bank to about 3100BC. The standing stones were then erected and rearranged periodically between 2600 BC and 1600 BC.
Bath has had human inhabitants as early as the Mesolithic period. Iron Age Britons treated the hot spring as a religious shrine honoring the goddess Sulis. The temple was constructed in 60-70 AD and the bath complex was built up over the next 300 years. Romans occupied Bath from the 1st to the 5th century. In the 18th century the town become a vacation spot for genteel families. It is said that people came to Bath for one of three reasons: Health from the baths, gaming at the card tables, or finding an acceptable husband/wife for offspring. Much of the 18th century social culture revolved around being visible in the right places, parties, dances, and promenades.
The Georgian city that we see today was built by John Nash Sr. and Jr.-all in the classical style. This is evident in the classical columns, and detailing on the facade. Interestingly enough neither architect card about what the back of the building looked like. While designing the kings circus (picture below) John Nash Sr. actually went to Stonehenge, measured the circle, and used those measurements to determine the curve of the crescent homes. In the below picture you can also see the mixed use of column style: Doric on the bottom representing the male figure, Ionic in the middle representing the matron, and Corinthian on top representing the beauty of youth.
The blue stained glass in the west end of the Salisbury Cathedral really deserves its own blog post. This stained glass is dedicated to Prisoners of Conscience, in other words it is dedicated to those imprisoned by their beliefs alone. Images of their faces are visible throughout the glass, but are so small that they can’t be seen from this far away. If you look at the picture above at first it may simply be a beautiful abstract. Now, look to the top of the center glass, a lighter spiral pattern flows down to Christ, seen on the cross from above, this light spiral represents the holy spirit as it ascends. Below each of Christ’s hands are drops of blood falling into chalices. The glass is full of other iconic images. To me, the most amazing thing about this piece of art is the light blue triangle that reaches across all three panels, connecting those who suffer, and those whose burdens are lifted to the figure of Christ.
I would attribute the sadness of this place to the two big trials of its history: the reformation and the civil war. In 1538 Henry the 8th broke off from the Catholic Church to divorce his first wife Catherine. The new Church of England, in an effort to allow believers closer to God, reformed the church. This reformation included destroying statues, removing paintings, defacing artwork and stripping the Cathedral of its most precious treasures. After getting destroyed, the citizens of Winchester bought the cathedral for around 60 Pounds. About one hundred years later in 1642 troops fighting the civil war stayed in the Cathedral. It was then that the medieval stained glass was shot out of the windows. The west wall does have some of the original glass, but it was put back together years later by King Charles in an abstract pattern. (see image below)
The Royal Pavilion was built in the Indo-Saracenic style by John Nash, then was decorated in a distinctly Asian style on the inside by Frederick Crace and Robert James. It was built to impress and please his guests. The entire pavilion is filled with Optical illusions (see the 2D painted and 3D sculpted leaves above the dragon chandelier) and fabrications. George the IV probably saw himself as a Chinese Emperor, and his residence in Brighton fits the part.
This amazing chandelier in the banquet hall measures 30 feet long. The silver gilded dragon is 10 feet long. Six smaller dragons around the middle of the piece exhale the lotus shaped lamps. The combination of luster crystals and argon lamps created “a diamond blaze” that had no parallel. The entire light weighs around one ton.
After George died, Queen Victoria decided that the pavilion was not fit for her growing family. After her last visit in 1845 the government planned to sell the building but was successfully petitioned by the town in 1850 to give the pavilion to the town for a mere 53,000 pounds.
Triptych III: Sketches of England
“Nobody can discover the world for somebody else. Only when we discover it for ourselves does it become common ground and a common bond and we cease to be alone.”
I sat here staring at the arrivals gate Terminal 4 for close to an hour before realizing that I was in the wrong terminal. Oops! There was a fascinating mix of people waiting for loved ones, people by themselves hurrying or dawdling, people pushing strollers, people pushing bag carts, German bros, and old English couples.
I lagged behind everyone else on the audio tour because I stopped on the south west side of the henge to draw the stones. I stood shifting from side to side to avoid the other tourists, captured my lines, and moved along.
The area directly outside of the Bath YMCA was beautiful. It was a slate courtyard surrounded by trees, plants, and quaint stone houses with red shingle roof tiles.
“History seems soaked into every corner of Bath. Ancient stone houses sit next to modern boutique stores. I am constantly surprised by the level of detail around me. This town is not perfectly planned, but it feels right, it feels like it grew off of a couple streets until it sprawled across hills-Organic and alive as a plant fitting itself into the crack of___.” Journal Excerpt
All told I spent about two hours in the roman baths. This place captured my imagination. I was having a hard time sitting in one place to draw because I knew that around the corner was another spot just as lovely.
Built by an eccentric millionaire by the name of William Beckford this structure represents the final epoch in William’s obsession with towers. His first was at his home called Fonthill Abbey. And although the tower was beautiful it was doomed by a lack of structural knowledge and fell, taking the abbey with it. This tower still stands strong overlooking Bath. The spiral staircase to the top room was lovely.
The assembly rooms were once the premiere place to see and be seen by potential partners, gamble, and drink tea. Now they are simply beautiful rooms with the fashion museum in the basement featuring centuries of fashion history.
I sat on the grass in Old Sarum and quickly took a sketch of the low crumbling walls before running off to join my friends.
Fachwerk and stained glass pretty clearly explain the aesthetic of the town. The glazed tiles are replicas of those that used to be on the floor of the Winchester Abbey leading towards the alter of St Slyvern.
The ruins of Wolvesey Castle were perfectly decayed. It truly was beautiful.
I love how these two buildings, both so iconic, complement and juxtapose each other like a reflection in a very warped mirror.
When I studied in New Zealand I showed up by myself, found my way to the dorm by myself, and had no structure to the first part of my trip. Here I started out by travelling the country with a group of my fellow students, all of whom were as excited as I was to be in England. The study gave me a deeper understanding of the culture and history of England while also being an exhilarating start to life in a foreign country. Now, it is time to dive into the maze and adventure that is this metropolis.