It turns out that Midlands England really does look like all the English countryside we see in the movies and on TV. There are sheep and hedgerows and quant towns and tiny little roads. Of course this should not surprise me but it does. So many things are not quite what they seem on TV.
Beloved and I flew in and out of Birmingham, which seems to be the factory floor of England, not the parlor room decorated to receive guests. The modern industrial process was invented and formed in this city and it remains charged with energy. Birmingham has attracted immigrants from around the world and the melting pot is simmering with lots of interesting new spices. Not that I’m a fan of the melting pot metaphor and not that I don’t mash up my metaphors in in confusing ways. Lets call it a stew pot, or even a salad where individual components retain their shape while contributing to the whole. Or maybe we should just move on because that’s what Beloved and I did the next morning.
We were on our way to Bath, England. On an English train. Which turned out to be late due to signal problems on the track somewhere which was also impacting every other train coming into or leaving the New Street station. Birmingham is something of a gigantic transfer point for all of England so a lot of passengers and train employees were having a tough morning. Still, we got help, new tickets, another train and we were on our way across the English countryside full of sheep, boat canals, rolling green fields, and quaint towns. Also bits of sun beams poking out in between rain saturated gusts. I half expected a tiny little Piglet being blown away with a slightly larger Pooh Bear running after him.
I think I need to organize myself a literary tour of England. If I managed to do so, I’d probably start with Bath which is, of course, the central point for the Jane Austin section even though she really lived somewhere else most of her life and only set a few chapters of a couple of books in that city. Its just that Bath got a huge upgrade in the 1700’s and then fell back into poverty so the city became frozen in time. Again. The first freeze taking place after the Romans came and installed their temple around the local hot springs which is apparently one of the only hot springs in England.
When the Romans came, they cleared the shrubbery, they built up a nice big high roofed bathing room and added some treatment rooms around the sides and then they left town, taking the maintenance crew with them. Everything fell back down, a few floods covered the remains and before long hardly anyone remembered that the baths existed. I think they remembered the water however but apparently bathing and soaking was generally ignored until one of the English queens took the waters and conceived a child not long after. Which set off the land rush and now allows the streets to be filled with tourists from around the world imagining Jane and even Mr Darcy walking the streets along side them.*
Bath is awesome. We stayed in a Landmark Trust apartment on the top two floors of Marshal Wade’s House. The Marshal Wade House is on the plaza in front of the Abbey Church which is one of those three or six story church buildings with that beautiful fan vaulting the English do so well. The interesting thing, well one interesting thing, is that this church is but a few feet from the temple the Romans built near the hot springs which was also venerated by the locals before the Romans showed up. Worship has happened within a 100 feet of this plaza basically since humanity first showed up.
We signed up for a small bus tour on Sunday of a few neighboring highlights. It was awesome, most especially because we didn’t have to deal with driving ourselves around in a country where everyone is on the wrong side of the road all the time. We saw two very cute frozen-in-time English towns: Lacock which has served as the set for both Harry Potter and one of the Pride and Prejudice films and Castle Combe which is a tiny little one lane town lined withe adorable cottages along a stream and is also a film set for Dr. Doolittle and War Horse. The best part of the tour were two ancient monuments: Avebury and Stonehenge. The locals love Averbury. You can walk into the middle of this giant circular trench, hand dug with deer antlers or something and with huge chunks of rock set in several circles within the area marked out by the trench. Its open. Anyone can come in and walk around and many do. Most of the group set off in a big walk around the trench but I remained in the center and just stood still.
It felt very peaceful.
It felt very centering.
Stonehenge was also awesome, even with the freeway just a few hundred yards away. For me, I felt a deep connection between the Bath Abbey Church and the giant stones hoisted up and forming a gateway in Stonehenge. A whole lot of people committed to some very intensive and multi-decade, multi-generation to build something tall. From Egypt to Rome to Dubai, we have been reaching up for a very long time.
We left Bath and took a short train hop over to Oxford, another city of buildings reaching up for the sky. Or at least short building reaching up for the sky with all its stone spires on everything. Oxford was amazing. First of all, its old. Really old. Oxford also comes with some serious academic chops. In many ways it shaped English culture as it educated men (and eventually women) in what it means to be English and to be in the ruling class. Or at least survive in the middle class once that developed.
The second reason Oxford is cool is having watched all the Inspector Lewis BBC shows, it was fun to be walking the actual streets and courtyards. Of course Harry Potter wasn’t too far away either. The current generation of students at Oxford are the first wave of Harry Potter readers, something none of the tourist stores have managed to overlook. There’s a first class Quiddach broomstick on display in one window and all the house elf masks one might desire.
We spent a night and enjoyed breakfast a early 18th century college dorm room. It was ridiculously awesome. To begin with, you check in with The Porter who has an office next to the entry gate way. (The Porter! This place has a porter!) I read a few of the notices from the now very modern office explaining to students that they had to turn in their keys before “going down” for the holidays. (Going Down! Going Up! – London is implied as being the center of England, eh?) Our room was well renovated for the 21st century in that we had all the plugs we needed but we looked out ancient windows to the courtyard below. How many generations had slept in that room? Or dined in the grand hall?
We booked our room through a web site specializing in aggregating Oxford dorm rooms over the holidays. It was easy to arrange our stay. In the neighborhood? You too, can sleep with ridiculously smart people. (traveler hint, avoid the pub on the corner next to the college. Worst food of the whole trip. Best place (so far) in England is a little pub down a alley way just up the street….)
I love Paris. I love France. I love the food and the countryside and the ways of decorating a home. I could throw ceramic chickens and those little fleurs-de-lis all over my house given a little push but I’m now also in love with England. At least the England as a film set and literature source. I also love London but probably mostly in short doses of a week or two at a time. We’re here in Europe for at least a few more years so we’re keeping the suitcases warmed up and semi-packed. I think I have a lot more places to go fall in love with before we leave town. I hope you fall in love with everywhere too.