March of 2013 was particularly significant for me, though I didn’t fully realize it at the time. I had been with my college in Colorado as a faculty member for not quite two years then, and undertook my first effort to co-lead a trip abroad, going to England and Scotland. It was the fulfillment of a life-long dream for me, of course, as I had been an Anglophile since I was ten, and I savored every moment on the ground. But I had no idea that it was going to trigger, albeit obliquely and some years later, being an American ex-pat living in England. Recently I was keenly aware of the connection between those things, as well as a very strong sense of closure for me. I was traveling once again with a group of students in London, but probably for the last time.
The trip did not have an auspicious start. While I traveled to London on a train, the group flew in from Colorado by way of Germany, which was odd, and meant they came into Heathrow Terminal 2 instead of Terminal 3. I’m not sure if it was just a bad day in Terminal 2, but it took them almost three hours to get through Passport Control and customs, so I had a fair amount of time to kill even after my LNER train from Newcastle was forty minutes late. (LNER seems to mean Late Now and Every Return). Despite the long wait, we were able to get them safely to the coach after that, and I provided some (hopefully helpful) color commentary in addition to the standard spiel the greeter gave them as we drove in.
The hotel we went to was in a neighborhood I knew pretty well because it was the same neighborhood I stayed in six years ago on my first trip, just by the Kensington High Street Underground station. I knew a couple of the pubs in the area, as well as where shops used to be, though London does seem to change at an alarming rate. I should have checked the sports schedules, though. That first night we tried to go out to a pub about five minutes from the hotel, only to find it was packed for Six Nations rugby viewing. So, in a twist of fate, we wound up at the very same Thai restaurant I went to six years ago when we likewise found the pubs in London packed. Luckily, it was still a good place to eat.
The traditions continued, too, as the next day I lead a small group of students to St Martin’s in the Field, where we all had lunch in the Crypt Cafe. This was where my friends led me my first day in London, and so there was something really nice about bringing others there to enjoy the ambiance and food. We were lucky, I suppose, that it wasn’t terribly busy, because Trafalgar Square was absolutely packed. It was St Patrick’s Day, so there were concerts, presentations, a parade, and so many people that when we left, and I tried to guide some of them out to Westminster Bridge so they could ride the Eye, we almost had to lock arms to make it through the crowd.
I confess I was not entirely looking forward to being in London at the start of the trip, but I am grateful to my students for helping me see it in fresh ways again. It was very enjoyable, watching students see London for the first time. It helped me remember my own experiences, and see again just what a beautiful city it is, or can be, if one can get past the noise and the crowding. Some of the architecture really is spectacular, and the mix of the old and new leaves a deep impression on many visitors. My mood was doubtless helped by the fact that I slipped away for a couple of hours to visit with a friend at a small, rather out-of-the-way pub for some drinks and great conversation, too. I’m not sure I will be as excited again the next time I go to London, but I might be. I suspect my next trip will be for research purposes, though, and so most of what I will see is the inside of the British Library. That’s not a bad thing, but not quite the same, either.
Once we got out of London, there were new things to see, so that was exciting. Stonehenge is probably worth visiting once, but for me, the real highlight of it was not the monument but the experimental archaeology reconstruction of a Neolithic village. If you are not familiar with it, experimental archaeology studies the past by attempting to recreate elements of it using period-appropriate tools, methods, and materials. In this case, they built a series of huts using different construction and roofing methods to see how they might weather, and what was the most efficient. The archaeology crew were just getting ready to re-thatch part of a roof when I was there, so having a chance to talk to the workers about a method and really get a feel for these early homes in England was a real highlight for me. Also, I must say, if you get the chance, go to the Avebury stone circle, too. Not only does the scale of it dwarf Stonehenge, but the village of Avebury was lovely to wander through, and you might even spot some local Druids in the henge, as we did. They were out to do their observance of the sun for Equilux (when the hours of light and dark are equal at the higher latitude, as opposed to the equinox, which so they said, was for the equator).
I might offer as a travel tip to skip Hastings itself, and just go directly to Battle. Even though the event in 1066 is called the Battle of Hastings, the fighting took place farther north and a bit west of Hastings itself. The Battle Abbey is well worth a look, and English Heritage has done a fine job of trying to capture the spirit and narrative of that fateful day when the course of English and western civilization changed forever. I personally found it very moving, and most enlightening, to stand in the middle of the battlefield itself and envision the Norman horses charging up the hill, trying to break though King Harold’s shield wall. The abbey itself is rather in ruins now, as are many, but the ground story is more intact than in many places, and the Gregorian chant I played from my iPhone reverberated nicely through the space. I was pleasantly surprised at how charming the town of Battle itself was, too. I could see easily passing an afternoon there in the shops and little cafes, in addition to visiting the English Heritage site.
I hadn’t been to Canterbury before, either, so that was a wonderful experience. Despite the scaffolding all around one end of the cathedral there, it was still an amazing and imposing building. The huge sections of intact medieval glass are beautiful, and looking up to the roof of the main tower from inside is almost beyond description, such a remarkable site it is. There are also some beautifully intact frescoes in one section of the crypt, and some medieval graffiti left by soldiers tasked with guarding Thomas Beckett’s body in the crypt until it was moved up to a more accessible point as his fame as a martyr grew. If you get a chance, go to an Evensong service there, even if you are not at all religious. The service I went to drew from Elizabethan music, though of course, the readings were in modern English. But the sound was amazing. It was only ten people singing, but it truly sounded like heavenly hosts. Outside the cathedral, much of the medieval wall of Canterbury is still intact after being refurbished in the 1330s, and so there is a nice walk to be had along the top of the walls.
I had to leave my group a couple of days early, trusting that my capable and dear friend who was co-leading with me could get them safely to Paris. When this trip was arranged, I did not know I would be teaching a class at Newcastle University, and so I had to forego the Friday and Saturday part of the trip to honor my obligations to my students in Newcastle. I doubt I will lead another group of students from the US again. My efforts to prolong my administrative leave were unsuccessful, and so my time at CNCC is coming to a close. As I hurried them all to the queue for the Eurostar it was kind of a sad parting for me, but I am hopeful my friend will come to visit me again soon, and that made the parting less sad than it might have been.
As I watched them queuing up for their rail tickets before I walked over to King’s Cross for my return trip, I thought about a moment from the first night, all the more poignant after the farewells. In 2013, bleary-eyed and right off the plane, I chanced upon a beautiful red telephone box just outside the hotel we were to stay in. Naturally, I had to have a picture with me and the phone box, and for the longest time, it was my Facebook photo, my proof that I had finally made it to England. Six years later, that red phone box is still there, and as I led the group out to dinner, we walked right past it. Naturally, I had to have a picture again. As I stood there, in the same pose, on the same street, I was on six years ago, that when the circle closed for me. In those six years, I had gone from newbie tourist to American expat, looking ahead to my degree, and a future that I am increasingly sure involves Britain in a big way, happy to make my home in Newcastle.