A return to England in the blink of an eye
Along with an old friend, I recently took a whirlwind trip to the British Isles. It was somewhat along the lines of a “If this is Wednesday it must be London” trip. In the course of eight days, our well-organized tour explored London and traversed much of England, Wales and Scotland.
This was my sixth time in Britain. My first was as an idealistic college student who spent a school year in Britain, including all of Ireland. In addition to intense studies of English and Scottish history, friends and I sang in a Gaelic choir and mastered the art of the “highland fling.”
Not to “go out with a whimper,” we departed the British Isles from the island of Orkney, hitchhiking on a Norwegian fishing boat. A guardian angel and a more innocent time protected two very naive young women as we sailed across the North Sea to Norway, in the company of several wild-looking young fishermen.
It is simultaneously exciting and strange to revisit places in half-day bits that I knew intimately 42 years ago.
In England, Stratford-upon-Avon remains tranquil in its special beauty. Familiar Windsor Castle continues to hold forth, and its St. George’s Chapel sadly bears the fresh graves of the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret.
In London, Big Ben still chimes its old rhythms, and Westminster Abbey continues to impress us with its stately importance. The Palace Guards still change posts in front of Buckingham Palace as they’ve done since 1937. The British Museum remains stalwart, and statues of Queen Victoria and her consort/husband, Prince Albert, still rein all over town.
Strangely, though, there is a new and hectic “busyness” permeating London. Perhaps this is best seen in the masses of Londoners (8 million of them) all seemingly in a hurry to get somewhere; and in the herds of automobiles (millions of them) trying to navigate through streets built in an earlier, carriage-driven time. London is full of excitement and a “can-do” mood, brimming with history and style.
Leaving London, we travel northwest towards Wales. On the way we visit the Tudor Monarchy’s country palace of Hampton Court, Salisbury Cathedral and finally Stonehenge. The behemoth stones of Stonehenge hover silently on Salisbury Plain, some predating the very oldest pyramids of Egypt. Words are unable to describe the wonder of this place.
Tintern Abbey in the Wye Valley of Wales is maintained in a state of arrested decay, largely dismantled by Henry VIII’s rampage against Catholicism and its English cathedrals and abbeys in the 1530s AD. Though beautiful, the ruins seem indifferent to my return. They’ve forgotten the naive college girl who had trodden their broken walls reciting Wordsworth so long ago.
It feels strange to be here, as if time has simply been a heartbeat, or the blinking of an eye.
Caernarfon Castle in North Wales still broods on its rocky promontory, the site of Prince Charles’ investiture as the Prince of Wales in 1969. The Welsh language remains impervious to understanding, much to my continued frustration. It seems one should intuitively understand the language of one’s forbearers.
On to Yorkshire and the medieval city of York. Then across the Yorkshire Dales of James Herriott “All Creatures Great and Small” to the romantic Lake District, former home of such poets as William and Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This is also home to Beatrix Potter, the creator of Peter Rabbit.
And then to Edinburgh, Scotland. Here, indeed, is an exciting city. History fascinates; a glorious castle pleases the eye. Here is the home of Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. From here we drive north to St. Andrews, the home of golf. We aren’t allowed into the Royal and Ancient Golf Club, not being on their esteemed list of members, but we console ourselves with beautiful views of the North Sea and the beaches we saw in Chariots Of Fire.
The trip is over. It’s been exciting in its history and beauty. It’s been strange in the timeless indifference of its ancient places. And we’ve been further instructed in our own rather insignificant place in the grand scheme of things — one of the great teachings of travel.
Susan Paslov is a retired attorney, teacher of English as a Second Language and sometime traveler.