Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Maymester English Class Goes to England and Scotland

by Mike Kirst

Eighteen of us, two instructors and sixteen students, banded together in May to visit Great Britain and experience firsthand the places that generated our classroom literature. We left with only theoretical knowledge and returned moved and matured. Beyond that, eighteen people can’t live so closely together for eleven days without gaining insights into ourselves and each other and forming relationships that couldn’t have been predicted.

Experience forms perception. That’s one of the great things about literature. Literature enables us to experience events and emotions we wouldn’t normally experience in our own lives. That perception must be far broader when experiencing the sights and sounds through which the authors of that literature lived.

We gathered at Charleston Airport on Thursday, May 10, only to find that our flight to Newark had been delayed by two hours, meaning we would miss out connecting flight to London. Fortunately, the airline people were helpful and thoughtful, getting us booked onto the next flight to London, meaning we would only arrive a couple of hours later. It still made for a long, impatient wait in Charleston, as a certain Mr. Kirst had insisted everyone arrive three hours early, out of an abundance of caution. Around sixteen hours later, at 11:00 a.m. London time, we stumbled out of Paddington Station and down the street to our London hotel, which was wonderful, unless one resided on the sixth floor, since there were no elevators.

We pushed to maintain our schedule and made a late afternoon visit to the Imperial War Museum (which provided many of our group with their first experience on the London Underground). The museum brought home the suffering and heroism of Britain’s survival in two world wars.

From there, we walked to the banks of the Thames, in the shadow of the London Eye, and embarked on a Thames River tour. Where we were and what we were doing became a reality as the New Globe Theatre and St. Paul’s Cathedral passed by and Tower Bridge loomed before us. Although we returned to the hotel exhausted after an extraordinary two days, many of group managed to find the energy to sample the neighborhood pubs, which abounded.

Early Saturday morning found us retracing the steps of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, although we were a bit more comfortable, nestled on a high speed train. From the Canterbury West station, a short walk down Station Road brought us to St. Dunstan’s Lane, which proved one of the “Omigosh!” moments of the trip. Jaws dropped and the group fell silent as the medieval city walls and gate loomed before us.
We were pretty sure we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

The Canterbury Cathedral awed our group, and even after arriving back in the States, many said it was the highlight of the trip. We visited the site of Thomas Beckett’s murder, the Pilgrim’s Hospital, St. Martin’s Church, Canterbury Castle and various other sights. A street market day added to the crowds and interest.

Sunday found us back in London touring the New Globe Theatre, another high point for many of us. As the weather had turned fair, we crossed the Thames to the Globe on the Millennium Footbridge, and walked from the Globe to Tower Bridge, crossing over to visit the Tower of London. A very irreverent member of the Beefeaters provided an excellent guided tour, after which we wandered to our hearts’ content.

Monday, we were back on the train, traveling to Warwick castle, where Thomas Malory, the author of Morte Darthur served the Earl of Warwick during the War of the Roses. It is thought that this beautiful, if somewhat commercialized castle is the basis for Malory’s Camelot. This was evidenced by the presence of a sword in an anvil. Unfortunately, none of our group qualified as the rightful King of England. One excellent discovery was the Oken Thomas tea room, just outside of the castle walls, which provided many with their first experience of an English afternoon tea.

Tuesday was another train day, travelling to Stratford upon Avon, visiting Anne Hathaway’s house, where the young Shakespeare courted his bride to be. The house is still imposing and set among beautiful gardens. We also visited Shakespeare’s birthplace, his final resting place at Holy Trinity Church, Hall’s Croft, and Nash’s House.

Wednesday was the graduate exam in Underground travel, as we started out by visiting the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street, where many had the opportunity to take magnifying glass and pipe in hand, don the deerstalker cap, and search for clues. Many found clues across the street at the Beatles Shop. One might legitimately argue that “Lovely Rita Meter Maid” is modern British literature.

From there, through the bowels of London’s Underground, we advanced to the British Museum, browsing as much as possible, but focusing on the Sutton Hoo exhibit, which showed Saxon artifacts of the type with which Beowulf, himself, would have been familiar. Another journey  through the Underground brought us to Westminster Abbey, beautiful, imposing, historic, expensive, and the final resting place of many of Britain’s literary greats, as well as kings and queens. Elizabeth I and Mary I rest side by side, reconciled in death.

We had hoped to visit Oxford on Thursday, but the reality of human endurance set in. Some members of the group suffered from serious sore feet, and everyone bordered on exhaustion. We took a semi-day off, allowing our travelers to be pure tourists, seeing whichever sights they pleased, on a relaxing, restful day. It is worth noting that many returned to the British Museum, as they felt they had nowhere near seen enough of it. Buckingham Palace, the London Aquarium, and the Churchill Cabinet Rooms were also visited.

We said good-bye to London on Thursday night and Friday morning boarded the train for Edinburgh. For those of us accustomed to Charleston’s almost tropical spring weather, Edinburgh was a rude shock, with temperatures in the low forties, wind, and driving rain. Fortunately, that began to improve Saturday morning for our visit to Edinburgh Castle, another high point for many of the group, and then St. Giles Cathedral. We also visited the Writer’ Museum at Lady Stair’s House, which focused on Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, and Robert Burns. 

No amount of planning could have foreseen that Edinburgh’s two Premier League football teams (okay, soccer to us) would be playing for the national championship on Saturday. Traditionally underdogs to the powerful Glasgow teams, no all-Edinburgh championship game has been played since 1896. Although the game was played in Glasgow, the locals were a little bit worked up. The trains and highways to Glasgow were crowded by those who hoped to attend in person, and every pub in Edinburgh was packed. For fans of Scottish soccer, the Hearts beat the Hibernians 5-1.

Coincidentally, that night was also the championship game of the European Champions League. An American equivalent might be if the NCAA National Championship football game fell on the same day as the Super Bowl.
Sunday morning, as we walked to the National Museum of Scotland, we paused to see the crowds at St. Giles, awaiting the arrival of the Provost of the Church of Scotland. He was escorted into the cathedral with an honor guard and serenaded by a pipe and drum band. We visited the Elephant House CafĂ© of J. K. Rowling fame and saw George Heriot’s School, which many claim is the model for Hogwarts.

While walking back up to the Royal Mile for a visit to Mary King’s Close, we encountered a crowd of thousands lining the streets. A police officer informed us that it was the official victory parade for the Hearts. Moments later, a bus full of football players, with the championship trophy in the front window, passed us by, amid the frenzy of the crowd. About a hundred yards down the street from us, the bus stopped, the players got off, and the real frenzy erupted. From our vantage point, all we saw were people’s backs, but it was still exciting. 

The Walter Scott Monument, the Children’s Museum, the Georgian New Town, and the Palace of Holyroodhouse were also visited by various members of the group.
Our stay at St. Christopher’s Hostel in the heart of Edinburgh was comfortable and enjoyable. Our participants had the opportunity to meet with travelers, young and old, from all over the world, as well as locals.

By Monday, May 21, we were all ready to head home, although we all also felt a little regret that our adventure was ending. Before they went their various ways at the Charleston Airport on Monday night, many of the students asked, “Where are we going next year?”
As we look forward to future travel, we would all advise potential travelers to pack light, wear comfortable shoes, and of course, “mind the gap!”




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