Boxing Day … And Home

December 26, 2000, Tuesday

Any American who’s had to return to work the day after Christmas because it fell on a weekday will agree it’s very civilized to turn the event into a two-day holiday. Thus December 26 is Boxing Day in England and elsewhere, though not in the United States. Wikipedia says:

In Britain, it was a custom for tradesmen to collect “Christmas boxes” of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. This is mentioned in Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for 19 December 1663. This custom is linked to an older English tradition: since they would have to wait on their masters on Christmas Day, the servants of the wealthy were allowed the next day to visit their families. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts and bonuses, and maybe sometimes leftover food.

For us, though, Boxing Day was literal: packing. We eased into the morning with breakfast and luggage. And after good-byes and photos, we loaded the car and set off for Heathrow, where we attempted to spend up all our leftover pounds in the gift shop before we boarded.

It was a fun trip! And a dream come true.

It was a fun trip! And a dream come true.

Thanks, Anna and Eoin, for such a personalized introduction to England!

Thanks, Anna and Eoin, for such a personalized introduction to England!

Our flight was packed with Brits coming to the States for a quick holiday before the new year—many of them to ski in the Northeast, it appeared. And this time I stayed awake, availing myself of Virgin’s movies on demand (Wonder Boys—with Michael Douglas, Robert Downey Jr., and Frances McDormand—was hilarious and fabulous; I still can’t understand why it failed at the box office).

We arrived in New York in the middle of winter, all of a sudden, after our mild English days. The temperature, we were told, was 28°F, but with the wind chill factor it was down below zero. We caught the shuttle to the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza, ordered room-service hamburgers, and fell exhausted into bed.

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn to catch a 6:35am flight into Nashville—groan—but it felt good to be home in spite of all that.

Christmas in England, For Realz

December 25, 2000, Monday – Christmas Day

After a good lie-in, we were up …

A Clarke-Chavez family tradition: a photo of the child as he enters the living room on Christmas morning.

A Clarke-Chavez family tradition: a photo of the child as he enters the living room on Christmas morning.

Then we went off to mass—back to the church for more wonderful Christmas carols. Jesse and I are used to singing harmony—we both trained as musicians and come from a church tradition that encourages multiple-part harmony in hymn-singing—but the children in front of us kept looking around and staring at us. They couldn’t understand why we weren’t singing the melody, and indicated this with their frowns and perturbation. Had to laugh!

We returned home for a big breakfast, which included scrambled eggs with smoked salmon. Although it broke his heart, Eoin graciously made mine without salmon, because you all know how I feel about things that swim (I don’t eat them), even if they are very expensive. And smoked.

Afterward we retired to the living room to open gifts …

Yes, I brought Jesse’s Christmas stocking all the way from Tennessee, and gifts for everyone too. This was pre-September 11, so one could travel with wrapped gifts in one’s suitcase.

Yes, I brought Jesse’s Christmas stocking all the way from Tennessee, and gifts for everyone too. This was pre-September 11, so one could travel with wrapped gifts in one’s suitcase.

… though each time we began with the unwrapping, it seemed, there came a knock on the door. It was (separately) the neighbors from both sides, dropping in to say hi. This must be an English custom: the Christmas Day afternoon visit. They were lovely folks—a bit surprised to find Yanks in the living room—and we promised a return visit later.

We did finally get to the prezzies!

We did finally get to the prezzies!

After the gift-opening ceremonies, we settled in for a lazy afternoon with our treasures and the telly; the BBC really does have some fabulous programming.

Watching the Queen’s Christmas Day speech. Er, the Royal Christmas Message.

Watching the Queen’s Christmas Day speech. Er, the Royal Christmas Message.

We even listened to the Queen’s annual Christmas message, broadcast at 3pm. (Here’s a rough video of it. The actual speaking starts around 4:45 but the preceding bit was all a part of the program—a recap of what she’d done that year. It’s interesting to view now, in 2014; how very young the princes look!)

I guess really I should say Anna, Jesse, and I settled in for a lazy afternoon, because Eoin—who you may have guessed by now loves to cook—busied himself in the kitchen with “Nellie Dean,” which is his family’s code word for the big turkey.

Someone’s in the kitchen with Delia … Delia Smith, that is. And yes, I returned to the States with a Delia Smith cookbook. :)

Someone’s in the kitchen with Delia … Delia Smith, that is. And yes, I returned to the States with a Delia Smith cookbook. 🙂

(One notable feature of the photo above is the refrigerator. Can you see it? It’s the white, below-the-counter fixture to Eoin’s left. Yanks will wonder how in the world they could make do with such a tiny fridge, but due to the climate, Anna and Eoin were able to keep many items in their cabinets that we would have to keep refrigerated—like, say, open jars of jam. Yes, God help me, I was constantly cold, but I imagine you get used to it. Clearly Eoin was quite comfortable in shirtsleeves.)

Calling the relatives on Christmas Day—a tradition on both sides of the pond!

Calling the relatives on Christmas Day—a tradition on both sides of the pond!

In the very late afternoon, then, we sat down to a traditional English Christmas dinner. And it was wonderful: roast turkey, bread stuffing, roast potatoes, gravy, sausages (yes), “bread pudding” (which is not what we Americans think of when one says bread pudding, but was like a thick white gravy, eaten with/on the turkey), and lovely vegetables, including julienned carrots (some of you know that with my love for all things carrot I can willingly stand at the kitchen counter for hours chopping them—there is a zen to it—but I have to tell you that Eoin’s carrots were, simply, perfection), fresh brussels sprouts with bacon (Anna, Jesse, and I love these, though Eoin does not; but he made them because they are very, very traditional), and parsnips baked in Parmesan cheese (seriously, yummy as french fries). We also opened a bottle of champagne I’d purchased in France for this occasion.

A funny story about the champagne: Eoin had become so engrossed in the cooking of the meal that he’d neglected to chill the champagne, so, in time-honored fashion, he’d stuck the thing, at the last minute, into the freezer. Then when he began to unwrap the cork, it popped out of the bottle on its own, hit the ceiling, and our lovely French bubbly spewed right after it (I have a photo of Eoin cleaning the ceiling). While Anna and I laughed hysterically, Eoin quickly bent over and sucked the foaming champagne out of the top of the bottle. (Well, wouldn’t you? It was Bollinger, for heaven’s sake! Let’s not waste a drop!) Later Eoin said sheepishly it was a measure of how comfortable they’d become with us that he would have done such a thing.

There was another English Christmas tradition to observe: I’d been eyeing the “Christmas crackers”—a cylindrical wrapped gift with filled with trinkets, a silly paper hat, and a joke or riddle on a slip of paper—Anna had placed at each plate. After we cleared the table, we popped them by crossing our arms and grasping the ends of two different crackers—ours and that of the person to our left—and pulling. POP! Out spilled the treats and the silly paper hat, which we then had to don for the rest of the day. Believe me, when I first heard of this tradition, months ago, I thought, No way am I donning a silly paper hat, but … well, I did. We all did. And it was good.

Anna and Eoin, post-cracker, wearing silly paper hats.

Anna and Eoin, post-cracker, wearing silly paper hats.

Jesse, also wearing a silly paper hat. :)

Jesse, also wearing a silly paper hat. 🙂

At last, dessert: eight weeks in the making, the oh-so traditional “Christmas pudding”—which you may also know as plum pudding or (yes, Virginia, it’s true) figgy pudding.* Doused in brandy and set alight, it was a spectacular conclusion to the meal. (Remembering, of course, that we were still wearing our silly hats. In fact, we were still wearing our silly hats hours later, sprawled in front of the television, laughing ourselves senseless at a parody of the movie Titanic.) For some, I imagine (say, unaccustomed American palates), Christmas pudding is an acquired taste; we have nothing in this country to compare it to (nothing, that is, that I know of from my unsophisticated Midwestern upbringing). So I’ll describe it as a cross between mincemeat filling and fruitcake, made in a mold with lots of brandy. Very, very rich. I ate a big ol’ piece of it, and so did Jesse. Merry Christmas!

* It’s interesting to me that this word—pudding—can have three so very distinct meanings, all food related. My Merriam-Webster Unabridged lists the first as blood sausage; I’ve seen this usage predominantly in Ireland (black pudding, white pudding). The second meaning in my dictionary is three-part: 1) a boiled or baked soft food usually with a cereal base, like corn pudding or bread pudding; 2) a dessert of a soft, spongy, or thick creamy consistency, like chocolate pudding (this is the sort of pudding Americans think of first, I believe); or 3) an all-purpose word used by the British for dessert. The third definition is a dish often containing suet or having a suet crust and originally boiled in a bag, like steak and kidney pudding. This is pudding the English refer to when they mention Christmas pudding.

London Has an Eye, and We Poked It

December 24, 2000, Sunday – Christmas Eve

We went back into London—this time driving with Anna and Eoin. And for the first time since our arrival—rain! Really, not much more than a drizzle, though it was enough to get us wet. And cold. Once again, we drove by landmarks and sites that seemed like something out of a dream: Buckingham Palace, the houses of Parliament, the Tate and other museums, Big Ben … and we stopped at the London Eye.

It’s a Ferris wheel, actually.

It’s a Ferris wheel, actually.

A viewing pod up close.

A viewing pod up close.

Intended to become an icon of the city of London, this is, well, a giant Ferris wheel. It has thirty-three giant pods, which are observation areas; each one holds up to twenty-five passengers (though on this relatively slow tourism day, each capsule got just ten or so folks) who enjoy a completely unobstructed view of London from a fabulous perspective (450 feet up, at the highest point). There are some very nice photos on Wikipedia, including a panorama, so be sure to look.

Jesse and I were so lucky to have just a few people sharing our pod.

Jesse and I were so lucky to have just a few people sharing our pod.

“Because it is situated on the banks of the River Thames, in the center of the City,” the official guidebook says, “it overlooks many of the city’s most famous and impressive landmarks … on a clear day you can see for 25 miles—as far as Heathrow Airport and Windsor Castle.”

On a rainy day we couldn’t see Windsor Castle, but I was delighted with this view of Big Ben and the red doubledecker buses.

On a rainy day we couldn’t see Windsor Castle, but I was delighted with this view of Big Ben and the red doubledecker buses.

It wasn’t a clear day for us, though. As mentioned, it was rainy (and cold, once you got out in it); Anna and Eoin decamped to a coffee shop to stay warm and dry while Jesse and I stood in line for the Eye.

The London Eye is situated on the banks of the Thames, just across and about 700 feet north of Westminster and Big Ben.

Here we’re looking south past Westminster now (in the lower right corner here); the rain’s really come up.

Here we’re looking south past Westminster now (in the lower right corner here); the rain’s really come up.

This massive building just across the river from the London Eye is the Royal Horseguards Hotel.

This massive building just across the river from the London Eye is the Royal Horseguards Hotel.

This is London County Hall from an interesting angle.

This is London County Hall from an interesting angle.

It was built to celebrate the new millennium (in fact, it was first known as the Millennium Wheel), so when we were visiting, it was not quite a year old yet (it had opened on 31 December 1999). The Eye has since become the most popular paid tourist attraction in the UK; when we were there in 2000, we’d heard stories of people waiting in line for three hours … but because it was Christmas Eve and raining, the lines were short and we were on board in less than fifteen minutes. Timing, as they say, is everything.

After our trip aloft, it finally stopped raining. These photos were made with a 1970s-era Canon F-1. If you wanted to zoom you had to change lenses, and I didn’t have the will to carry around more than one lens (the camera, with its all-brass fittings, was heavy enough). So I’m pleased with what I got, all things considered.

After our trip aloft, it finally stopped raining. These photos were made with a 1970s-era Canon F-1. If you wanted to zoom you had to change lenses, and I didn’t have the will to carry around more than one lens (the camera, with its all-brass fittings, was heavy enough). So I’m pleased with what I got, all things considered.

With the light dwindling, Eoin gave us a final pass through the city’s various districts: the West End (a social and cultural center, as well as the London home of the royal family); Westminster (the center of political and religious power); Kensington (an exclusive area of parks, museums, and hotels); Regent’s Park (an area of upscale, mostly Georgian, homes); Southwark (the riverfront area); and “the city” (the financial district). “The largest city in Europe”—I’m quoting the guidebook here, though Anna claimed England was not in Europe!—“London is home to about seven million people and covers 625 square miles. Founded by the Romans in the first century AD, it has been the principal home of British monarchs for a thousand years, as well as the center of business and government … in addition to its diverse range of museums, galleries, and churches, London is an exciting contemporary city.” Typical British understatement. 🙂

During this farewell tour, we made our last stop at a pub, to raise a glass to this part of our visit. To London! Eoin took us to Prospect of Whitby—the oldest continuously operating pub on the river. Here’s some history: the famous riverside public house ‘the Prospect of Whitby’ on Wapping Wall dates back to 1520 and was once notorious for being a den of thieves and smugglers. (It’s even mentioned in the diaries of Samuel Pepys.) Originally it was known as the Devil’s Tavern, probably for good reason.

Anna and I each had a shandy, which is a beer/lemonade combination, and while you may wrinkle your nose at the thought, I am here to tell you it was delicious. (My friends will know I have a great margarita recipe that calls for a can of beer, so in fact this notion of beer and citrus juices is not so farfetched.)

After this we drove home to Berkshire, where we changed clothes and went off to the carol service and midnight mass at the Corpus Christi Church in Wokingham. We sang carols and pinched ourselves—Christmas in England!

Upon our return home, we observed traditions from both Eoin’s and Anna’s families: we ate mincemeat pies (which Eoin had made earlier in the day) and sipped ginger wine—the former tradition from Eoin’s side, the latter from Anna’s. And with this glow in our stomachs, we toddled off to bed.

On Our Own in London Town

December 23, 2000, Saturday

Anna and Eoin had lots to do to get ready for Christmas (including some last-minute shopping), so once we were up and moving, Eoin drove Jesse and I in to Reading. He planned to do some shopping; we were going to catch the train to London.

London! The possibilities for tourists in this grand city are endless, but we’d already decided on the historic British Museum. We’d get off at London Paddington, then hop the underground—the tube—to the Picadilly Circus station in the heart of London.

Piccadilly Circus tube station subway entrance opposite the Trocadero and next to Eros, on the southern side of Piccadilly Circus (image is from Wikipedia). As you can see, not reeeeally a circus (ahem).

Piccadilly Circus tube station subway entrance opposite the Trocadero and next to Eros, on the southern side of Piccadilly Circus (image is from Wikipedia). As you can see, not reeeeally a circus (ahem).

Thank goodness I had Jesse with me. I can usually figure things out, given time to, you know, breathe deep and study. But you don’t really have time for that in a big city, especially during the Christmas rush. However, Jesse immediately divined the whole system: how to read the maps, how to change routes, which platform to stand on to catch which train … I truly believed he could easily exist in that big-city environment (in fact, Anna and Eoin had already decided he must be part British, so easily had he fit in with, well, everything), while I, left to my own devices, might still be lost in the bowels of London.

At one point, when we changed from one route to another, we found ourselves in what appeared to be one of the original London underground stations. The others had been very sleek and modern in appearance, while this one looked to be turn-of-the-last-century. Once again I was charmed by the most unexpected thing: a great, cavernous hall that looked like something out of Dickens. Or a late-night horror show. (Which in some ways isn’t that far from Dickens.)

A Hammersmith and City Line train for Barking arrives at one of Baker Street's two oldest platforms. (From Wikipedia.)

A Hammersmith and City Line train for Barking arrives at one of Baker Street’s two oldest platforms. (From Wikipedia.)

We made our way across town to the British Museum and spent the whole afternoon wandering from room to toom, marveling at hundreds of exhibits of antiquities from around the world. The museum’s collections are arranged by geography, culture, or theme; I love the antiquities so we spent much of our time in prehistory, Greece, Rome, and Egypt. The Rosetta Stone, mummies, Roman statues galore … we saw them all. To be honest, we didn’t have time to read every single card at every single glass case; we browsed, as our time was limited.

“The British Museum is one of the world’s greatest treasure houses, and one of its most respected academic institutions,” the offiucial guidebook says. “Founded in 1753, the Museum exists to illuminate the histories of cultures … Since its foundation, the British Museum has been guided by three important principles: that the collections are held in perpetuity in their entirety; that they are widely available to all who seek to enjoy and learn from them; and that they are curated by full-time specialists. … Its principal aims today are to be at the center of international scholarship and to disseminate knowledge for the education, in the widest sense of the word, of all.” To make good on this mission, the museum is open to the public free of charge. Ya gotta love that.

Later we walked through Harrods, a huge, upmarket department store. In fact, it’s seven floors of shopping in a building that encompasses 4.5 acres—the largest department store in Europe.

Harrods department store as viewed from the north-east along Brompton Road, in London, England. (From Wikipedia, this photo is by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0.)

Harrods department store as viewed from the north-east along Brompton Road, in London, England. (From Wikipedia, this photo is by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0.)

I’m not much of a shopper even when I’m in the mood, but to be frank, we were all shopped out. And the place was an utter madhouse, what with it being two days before Christmas and all. There is a world-famous food hall in the basement but we were innocent, inexperienced Yanks and had no idea where to even begin. And, again, it was shoulder-to-shoulder crowded. I’m sorry to say we didn’t linger. Here’s a little video that gives an idea of what the food hall was like. You can hear how loud it is—now just imagine it on the eve of Christmas Eve. 🙂

This day spent on our own in London was a great time for Jess and I to chat in a way we don’t often have time to do. What an adventure we were having! We dragged ourselves home in mid-evening, all walked out. (Those of you who know how much I have dieted this fall may wonder how I was able to eat so much clotted cream and such—things I have generally given up eating in my normal life (not, of course, that I come across clotted cream in the States, ever)—and yet managed to keep weight gain to zero. In a word: walk. Walk, walk, walk, walk, walk!

Just two more days to go, and our wonderful trip to England will be over.

Stonehenge: It’s Not as Big as You Think

December 22, 2000, Friday

We had tea and crumpets for breakfast! Now doesn’t that sound wonderfully English? A crumpet is sort of like a chewy English muffin (although I don’t think they call them English muffins over there, ha) that you don’t slice. Hard to explain, but delicious nonetheless. (And if you want to be further confused, read this.) Those of you who know I had given up breads in my quest to shed a few pounds can just imagine how difficult it was for me to try all these wonderful new baked goods.

And then … off to Stonehenge. Yes. This place, this circle of rocks on a windswept plain, was the only item on my absolutely-must-see list, which may astonish some of you. Or not. I have always been fascinated by history, and it’s the most ancient history that really gets my attention.

Anna had downplayed Stonehenge. “You Americans always say ‘it’s not as big as I expected’”—and, frankly, that was true, although not a disappointment in the least. (Those outer stones are about ten feet high.) Here’s why some Yanks expect something more: we’ve all seen those beautiful sunrise or sunset photos of Stonehenge. Lovely, but there are no humans in them for scale, so we never really grasp the true size and scope of the place. It looms very large in our imaginations.

Look, I did it too: no humans!

Look, I did it too: no humans!

Here’s a wider angle. Don’t be mislead by those tiny humans you see; they are on the far side and standing below the earthworks, as I am.

Here’s a wider angle. Don’t be mislead by those tiny humans you see; they are on the far side and standing below the earthworks, as I am.

But the thing about Stonehenge isn’t the size, for heaven’s sake.  No, it’s that the two distinctly different types of stone used to build it were brought such great distances with such primitive tools. The unique bluestones, they know, came from the Preseli Mountains in southwest Wales—a distance of some 150 miles as the crow flies, which is not how the stones came, thankyouverymuch—in 2600 BC. Think about it. That’s the Neolithic period, and these stones weigh about four tons each.

“There were three phases in Stonehenge’s development,” the guidebook says. “The first Stonehenge was a large circular earthwork, probably used as a ceremonial meeting place about 5000 years ago. This was followed by timber settings between 4900 and 4600 years ago. The final phase came with the erection of the bluestones, followed by the building of the stone circle with sarsen stones from the Marlborough Downs.” I have some lovely postcards with aerial photographs that clearly show the circular perfection not only of the monoliths, but of the mounds and earthworks, which trace a much larger circle in the chalk plains.

Stonehenge sits out in the middle of nowhere, on the Salisbury (pronounced SOLZ-bree) Plain, and the wind, even on a nice day, sweeps right through. This particular day was the coldest one we’d yet experienced—though it didn’t stop your intrepid travelers! By now we’d learned the fine British art of weather-ignoring.

While I was purchasing tickets, I asked to buy a reduced-price student ticket for Jesse. The clerk asked for some proof that he was a student, and while I was nonplussed for a moment, the Englishman standing behind us spoke up. “It’s quite obvious he’s a student!” he said and pointed to Jesse’s very American school jacket. By their clothing ye shall know them. 🙂 Really, it was just so stinkin’ cold, he wanted to move the line along, and it worked. We toured the site—probably faster than we might have on a nicer day—and took lots of photos. After that, we bought hot chocolate and more baked goods (I had bread pudding, a favorite of mine) from the on-site food stand … and then blithely stood right outside and ate and drank as if the wind wasn’t blowing and we weren’t freezing. “Lovely day, what?”

Seriously, we were freezing.

Seriously, we were freezing.

From Stonehenge we drove on in to Salisbury to visit its magnificent cathedral, which has the tallest spire of any in England (reaching a height of 404 feet). Salisbury Cathedral is unique amongst medival English cathedrals in that it was entirely built within one century (between 1228 and 1258), with no substantial later additions; as a result, it is a single architectural style, called Early English Gothic.

It’s quite a spire—world famous!—and my camera really couldn’t do it justice. Note in the lower right: it appears they were working on the roof. The upkeep on a building like this must be constant and ongoing.

It’s quite a spire—world famous!—and my camera really couldn’t do it justice. Note in the lower right: it appears they were working on the roof. The upkeep on a building like this must be constant and ongoing.

Within sight of the modern town of Salisbury (pop. 40, 302 in 2011), which even a thousand years ago was a thriving community, is the outline of the old Norman fort called Old Sarum—the residence of the local royalty. (I’m sorry to say we didn’t visit it.) A cathedral was laid out alongside this royal castle, the foundation of which can still be seen today; it was consecrated in 1091. After one hundred years or so, though, the need was seen for a site on which the cathedral could grow, and that’s when the present-day cathedral took shape. (This building was called de novo—a Latin expression for from the beginning, afresh, anew, beginning again—because they moved it to a completely new spot, away from the old town. There it stood, out on the plain, alone. Later the town grew up around it, but the grounds are still very parklike.)

It is so large it’s impossible to take it in with a camera. And this is one of the sides, not the front.

It is so large it’s impossible to take it in with a camera. And this is one of the sides, not the front.

Building detail from Salisbury Cathedral, December 2000. Don’t forget you can click on an image to enlarge it, then click again to zoom in.

Building detail from Salisbury Cathedral, December 2000. Don’t forget you can click on an image to enlarge it, then click again to zoom in.

I cannot even begin to describe how beautiful it is; step inside and you can truly feel the presence of God.

The vaulted ceiling is indescribable. There was a little daylight left; this was taken—as all my photos were—without a flash.

The vaulted ceiling is indescribable. There was a little daylight left; this was taken—as all my photos were—without a flash.

The cathedral is filled with art, both ancient and modern, from an antique stained glass window and the tomb of the first bishop (both brought from the original structure at Old Sarum) … to a modern series of stained glass windows installed at one end in 1980 (dedicated to political prisoners worldwide) … to a group of very modern papier-mâché statuary decorating the nave.

Isn’t this angel just fantastic?

Isn’t this angel just fantastic?

This crèche is also papier-mâché. Why are the Wise Men the only ones with color? Who knows!

This crèche is also papier-mâché. Why are the Wise Men the only ones with color? Who knows! (I loved that there was a cat and dog visiting the Baby Jesus.)

Outside the cathedral is the Chapter House, an octagonal building that serves now as a museum, housing art, silver chalices, medieval manuscripts and early printed books, and one of the four surviving original texts of the Magna Carta, the famous agreement made between King John and his barons at Runnymede (near Windsor) in 1215.

The cloister walk encloses a pretty green next to the Chapter House.

The cloister walk encloses a pretty green next to the Chapter House.

The barons violently opposed John’s disastrous foreign policy and his arbitrary use of power, and in their successful rebellion forced the king to accept this bill of rights. “Its importance cannot be exaggerated,” the guidebook tells us. “Initially designed to regulate the feudal relationships betaeen the Crown and its immediate tenants, it provided for regular justice in courts and ensured that the Crown (and nowadays the State) would only act against its subjects by recognized legal procedure. The most famous chapter of the Magna Carta states: ‘No free man shall be take or imprisoned or deprived or outlawed or exiled or in any way ruined … except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.’”

When Jesse and I moved to the front of the crowd to better see this ancient piece of vellum, the older gentleman there, a volunteer guide, asked us where we were from (had we opened our mouths, he would have known). When we answered, he smiled and said, “Oh, this manuscript is of monumental importance to the people of your country,” and proceeded to tell us—and others gathered there—all about the Magna Carta.

I so enjoyed him that I asked if I could take his photograph, and he walked outside into the cloister green with Anna, Jesse, and I, where we stood talking for another twenty minutes. He was eighty-two years old, a retired Church of England bishop, and quite charming. After he’d gone back inside, Anna told us we’d just had yet another truly British experience: listening to an old soldier tell about the war! (World War II that is.)

Me and the Magna Carta docent. Such a lovely man he was!

Me and the Magna Carta docent. Such a lovely man he was!

We walked through the town’s shops on our way back to the car, and it was here in Salisbury that I bought my personal souvenir: a sweater. I’d wanted something I could use and enjoy in the coming years that would be a reminder of my trip, and this lovely sweater, knitted and hand-embroidered in the north of England (I was told by the shopkeeper) really fit the bill.

I wish I knew what this building is or was. It looks official, doesn’t it? Taken in Salisbury is all I know. Anna posed us.  :)

I wish I knew what this building is or was. It looks official, doesn’t it? Taken in Salisbury is all I know. Anna posed us. 🙂

We’re nearing the end of our journey … and getting closer and closer to Christmas. We were really looking forward to a traditional England Christmas celebration—stay tuned and you’ll hear about it!

NOTE: These photos were taken before the days of digital cameras—or at least, before people like me could afford them—so what you see here has been scanned from the hard copy. Not great quality, but it’s all I’ve got. 🙂

UPDATE: Want to know about more recent developments at Stonehenge? I did some research on it.

Home Sweet Home

21 December 2000, Thursday

We slept late—’til eight o’clock. (Do you spot a trend here? I normally get up at four in the morning to get to work, and my body is trained to that—so I was waking up and reading for a bit, then falling back asleep until the household was up.) Then while Eoin went off to work again (it’s dirty work, but someone’s got to do it …), Anna drove Jesse and I to the town of Windsor (in the royal country of Berkshire), where we visited Windsor Castle. (This is a really pretty picture of it, from an angle we didn’t really see, as the tourist parking is to the left in this photo.)

We had a ball!

A different view altogether. The buildings you see here form the south side of the quadrangle, a beautiful lawn enclosed on three sides (north, east, south) with the iconic round tower—out of frame to the left in this photo—squatting where the western wall might have been. Here’s a map!

A different view altogether. The buildings you see here form the south side of the quadrangle, a beautiful lawn enclosed on three sides (north, east, south) with the iconic round tower—out of frame to the left in this photo—squatting where the western wall might have been. Here’s a map!

The Round Tower, which sits on a little manmade hill in the center of the compound. You can see the Queen was in residence—the flag is flying.

The Round Tower, which sits on a little manmade hill in the center of the compound. You can see the Queen was in residence—the flag is flying.

An official residence of the Queen of England, the existing vast structure of the castle “has evolved over many centuries from its origin as a Norman fortress” (it was one of a chain of fortifications around London), the official guidebook tells us. “Windsor Castle is the oldest royal residence to have remained in continuous use by the monarchies of Britain”—for more than 900 years!—“and is in many ways an architectural epitome of the history of the nation. The castle covers an area of about thirteen acres and contains, as well as a royal palace, a magnificent collegiate church and the homes or workplaces of a large number of people, includig the constable and governor of the castle, the military knights of Windsor, and the dean and canons of St. George’s Chapel.”

The compound roughly divided into three geographical sections: the upper ward, which is the Quadrangle surrounded by three castle walls; the middle ward, which is the Round Tower and the mound it sits on; and the lower ward, which is walled in and contains, among other outbuildings, St. George’s Chapel.

I can’t honestly tell you where we were, here. But this was a lovely garden, I thought, in the bleak midwinter.

I can’t honestly tell you where we were, here. But this was a lovely garden, I thought, in the bleak midwinter.

It is hard to believe that this large estate is actually someone’s home, and yet the clues are there if one looks. St. George’s Chapel is where the last of the Windsor sons, Edward, was married, a year or so ago. He considered it his “home church,” and felt comfortable marrying there, as any of us would at the church in which we were raised. (Of course, it is unlikely that your home church serves as the final resting place of ten British sovereigns—including Henry VIII.)

Here the Round Tower is behind us, and the lower ward of the compound is spread out before us. That’s St. George’s Chapel on the right.

Here the Round Tower is behind us, and the lower ward of the compound is spread out before us. That’s St. George’s Chapel on the right.

Also, from the top of the castle walls one can look out over the English lowlands to see Eton in the distance; this, of course, is where the Princes William and Henry go to school. (Well, William just graduated.) It’s really not so far away at all, and its proximity to the castle softens the notion I have of “sending the child off to boarding school.” And when the disastrous fire of November 1992 broke out, the Queen herself stood outside and watched with tears in her eyes as the fire spread rapidly at roof level (by great good fortune, the rooms worst affected were empty at the time, as they were in the process of being rewired). Members of the royal family, including Andrew and Charles, helped with the cleanup effort during the next days.

So, as you can see, people live here; they care about the place. This is very much a home.

It’s unlikely that your house has gargoyles, though. Or windows like this. I know mine doesn’t. :) (Don’t forget, you can click on the photo to enlarge it, then click again to zoom in.)

It’s unlikely that your house has gargoyles, though. Or windows like this. I know mine doesn’t. 🙂 (Don’t forget, you can click on the photo to enlarge it, then click again to zoom in.)

We spent several hours wandering the castle, which is filled with art treasures, just unbelievably beautiful stuff (the castle holds the Royal Collection, which includes works by DaVinci and Michaelangelo and is considered one of the finest art collections in the world). A highlight for me was Queen Mary’s dollhouse, which was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens on a scale of 1 to 12 and presented to Queen Mary in 1924. The guidebook says “it was intended as an accurate record of contemporary domestic design. The mechanical and engineering equipment—including the water system, the electric lights, and the two lifts”—elevators to us Americans—“was made to work. The gramophone plays and the bottles in the wine cellar contain genuine vintage wines. The furniture and other contents were made by the leading manufacturers of the day. The paintings were commissioned from then well-known artists and the books on the shelves of the library were written by prominent authors, some in their own hand. Rudyard Kipling, G. K. Chesterton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Hardy, and J. M. Barrie are among the writers represented.” Astonishing, huh?

Today, nine centuries after its foundation, the castle continues to perform its primary role as an official residence of the Queen. The state apartments are the formal rooms used for ceremonial, state, and official occasions. They range from the smaller, intimate rooms of Charles II’s apartments to the vast scale of the Waterloo Chamber, built to commemorate the famous victory over Napoleon in 1815. These are what tourists are allowed to see, if they’re not in use. Here’s the official video:

Later we strolled through the town and shops. I bought a Christmas ornament as a souvenir, although we had to ask in a lot of shops before we found one. You can find souvenir Christmas ornaments year ’round in the States, of course, but that particularly American craze hadn’t found its way to Windsor.

But where else could you find such a delightfully crooked house? Windsor, Berkshire, Christmas 2000.

But where else could you find such a delightfully crooked house? Windsor, Berkshire, Christmas 2000.

We’d decided to go catch a movie (Meet the Parents) when we returned to Barkham, but had a one-hour wait until showtime. So we wandered through a grocery store, where I bought tea, biscuits (cookies), and chocolate. And we laughed ourselves silly at the movie, which was a marvelous juxtapostion to the pomp and circumstance of Windsor.

Free Day!

20 December 2000, Wednesday

Anna came down with a stomach bug and, unbeknownst to the Americans sleeping in her guest room, was up all night. And Eoin, after seeing to his wife’s needs, really had to go to work—which left Jess and I on our own for the day.

After easing into the morning, then, Anna drove us the five or so minutes to the station in Wokingham, where we caught the train into Reading (pronounced REDDing) to do some shopping and wandering. The journey by train took less than ten minutes, even with stops in between. It felt like we were on a people mover at Disneyland. 🙂

Reading is in the Thames Valley about halfway between London and Oxford. The city grew near the meeting place of the Rivers Thames and Kennet, which were the main transport routes through the anciecnt woodland that covered most of southern England. The mainstay of employment in Reading is now the computer industry, with Microsoft, Digital, Hewlett-Packard, and Oracle all having large offices in or near the town; currently (in late 2000) there are jobs available in Reading and not enough people to fill them. Once famous for “beer, biscuits, and bacon,” as well as seed production, Reading has seen these industries close down or move away. However, there is still a large brewery on the edge of town. The old brewery—in the center of town—has now been redeveloped into a major shopping center, called the Oracle.

It was to this mall—the first and only mall we visited in England—that we directed our footsteps … but first we wandered in and out of small shops in the central shopping district that lay between the train station and the Oracle. We preferred the streets, where there were happy Christmas shoppers, street musicians, tea shops, and just generally a lot going on.

I learned more about Reading after I returned home. This was before smartphones, and we didn’t have a map or any way to research. Reading might have been an interesting place to sightsee; there are some old churches and the ruins of an abbey, for example. A university too. The town dates from the eighth century, so there’s definitely some history. I wish I’d prepared a little more thoroughly for an unexpected day in a strange town, but I guess you just can’t. And I was new to this traveling business.

So … we shopped. 🙂 We found ourselves in a small shop, a men’s clothiers called Butler’s, where we were treated like royalty, although we spent less than ten pounds. (Later we learned that this small shop, into which we’d wandered by accident, was Eoin’s preferred vendor for suits, dress shirts, and the other accoutrements of the natty English businessman.) It was so nice to be made to feel welcome!

We ate a quick dinner in the train station and didn’t return to Wokingham until long after dark, when we’d just about walked our feet off. Anna had gone off to visit her parents that evening, and we had a nice chat with Eoin before bed.