Driving west out of London, we found the countryside to be a breath of fresh air. Motel-ed in Liphook. Wednesday morning we drove to Jane Austen’s house in Alton, Chawton. A lovely day! This was an even better experience than the Bronte Parsonage. I especially enjoyed how the exhibits and museum related much of the artifacts back to Austen’s writing. Austen was insanely productive, never married, and died in her 40s. For several years she lived in Bath, but she hated it there. (Which is so funny because in Bath there’s this whole museum dedicated to her. When she lived there, her writing came to a halt because she was so unhappy!) It was only when she returned to Alton in her late 20s that she began reworking her manuscripts and started publishing them. She was very close to her sister. The intimacy shared by Jane and Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is most likely autobiographical. Also, Jane Austen’s character is to be commended. At her death, Jane was praised by her brothers for her good Christian character and kindness. Jane Austen’s quiet family life in the country was conducive to productive writing. Jane Austen’s story is not without hardship, but the Jane Austen House Museum explains how Austen became successful despite these setbacks and never let her work and her craft get in the way of family and friendship.
In the afternoon, we drove to Stonehenge! A most amusing experience here. In line to get tickets, an Austrian man, in limited English says to us, “We are six. You are five. Eleven makes a group. We save 1.50 pounds if group. I checked. Okay? We are group.” We smile politely at the men, which we find out are six Catholic priests. So we became a “group.” We were asked if we were part of a “community,” and when we mentioned the Reformation, things got a little awkward. But they were very friendly priests, and we even got our picture taken with them at Stonehenge! Not to mention saving £1.50 a person!
After eating dinner in the only pub in the tiny village of Cholderton (population 210), we checked into our hostel, which was next to an exotic animal farm.
Thursday was one of my favorite days. My friends gave me a hard time because this was me almost every day: “OH MY GOODNESS GUYS THIS IS MY FAVORITE DAY SO FAR.”
But seriously. Stourhead Gardens was exquisite! If you want to vacation like a Brit, head to Stourhead Gardens. You’ll see the British grandpas and the grandmas in their bucket hats… the ladies in their dresses… walking their dogs… the children playing by the river… the families with picnics… It’s a lovely experience.
I put Stourhead on our itinerary because it is home to superb architectural features including a Palladian mansion, a Palladian Bridge, a Pantheon, and a Temple of Apollo (which, in years past, I have renamed “The Round Thingy” and have received unending ribbing because of it.) The gardens, the features, and the house are rare. One rarely gets to see these sorts of places in movies. (The bridge and the temple were featured in the 2005 Pride and Prejudice. Also, the interior of the mansion reminded me of other period movies.) Lovely to see in real life. Do yourself a favor and read up on the Stourhead Gardens. The lake is actually man-made and the surrounding gardens and walking paths are carefully designed for artistic cohesiveness.
After walking, reading, and touring the house, I had another lovely setting of cream tea.
We drove to Bath, which Jane Austen hates, and inched the Avensis up a very narrow drive to the YHA hostel, whose service and food left a bit to be desired.
Friday morning we made our way to a free car park outside the village of Castle Combe. Castle Combe is an iconic English village, full of stone and hanging baskets. Again, period movies are shot there because it is so quaint.
Back in Bath in the afternoon, I realized I was museum-ed out. I’m not sure how to admit this, but I didn’t go to the Roman baths. It was expensive, and I felt like I would have just gone inside, taken a picture, and then left. I needed a break from our crazy schedule. So I just walked the town, listening to street musicians, visiting little shops, and people-watching. It was refreshing.
Saturday morning I was pretty peaked. We didn’t really have plans made yet for Stratford-upon-Avon. We were all kind of losing steam, but I was wanting to make sure that I made the most of every moment of this trip. On the drive to Shakespeare’s hometown, we stopped at McDonald’s for potties and food, but I refused to eat there. I was determined to find something authentic in Stratford. I really wanted to go to a Shakespeare play (I was saving money for this), but my friends didn’t want to go, and I was really starting to worry about coordinating all this because the GPS was showing that our hotel was not very close to the city center.
I shouldn’t have worried. Our beautiful hotel, the Grosvenor Best Western, was located a 5 minute’s walk from the center AND the Royal Shakespeare Company. I headed out by myself and inquired about last-minute tickets. The agent asked how old I was, and since I was 16-25, she was able to sell me a £5 ticket for the same-day showing of the RSC’s King Henry the IV, Part II! I was ecstatic!
Until the play, I explored Stratford. It was here that I first treated myself to a full traditional afternoon tea. You know those little cupcake towers? They brought one out, except it was filled with food, not cupcakes, and it was all for me! Nine tiny little sandwiches, a scone and clotted cream (of course), and a piece of cake a lemon tart.
Strolling by the Avon, waiting for the play to start, I decided that traveling by yourself is not very fun. Avoid it if you can.
The Shakespeare play was quite the experience. These actors spend much of their acting career performing Shakespeare. It is quite possibly some of the most informed Shakespeare you will ever see. I had read Henry the IV, Part I in college, so I was at least familiar with the characters. Falstaff was amazing.
Sunday we visited Stratford-upon-Avon Baptist Church. Very friendly British Baptists!
In Stratford, I also made sure to visit Shakespeare’s houses. I was a little disappointed. After paying a large fee, you entered, and the guides were like, “So here’s his house.” There wasn’t a lot of information to make it meaningful or even to relate it back to Shakespeare and his works. I walked down to the house where he lived as an adult (which I had paid to see), and inside they were like, “This is his neighbor’s house. Shakespeare’s adult residence was torn down in 1759.” Apparently, I had missed the key words like “site” and “foundation” rather than “house” at the information center. It was still cool, though, to see examples of Tudor architecture and furniture. All hand-carved.
I also visited Holy Trinity Church, location of Shakespeare’s grave (which again, was inside the cathedral, beneath the floor). I was interested in the church’s displays and explanation of Christian belief.
I also got to learn fun facts about Shakespeare, like… (shocker) his wife had a bun in the oven before they got married.
Monday morning we had a four hour drive back to the ferry port in Wales. Entering Wales, we experienced that disorientation when the signs switch back to both Welsh and English. I found it distracting to wade through so much text. Off the carriageway, we were again winding through mountain roads and villages. Soon, we entered Snowdonia, and we oohed and ahhed at the gorgeous views before us. Our crossing on the ferry was very smooth.
Back in Dublin, waiting for a taxi, we met a Christian named Jenny. A charming Dubliner. She is a musician at her church in the Dublin city center. We found out she had just come from the London Hillsong Conference. She was fairly glowing, and wished us well on our trip home.
And fly home we did.
Safely back in the States, I thank God for this trip of a lifetime. For the lessons, the experiences, the beauty, and the culture. For singing lessons, and music memories, for happy times and for disappointments, and lush Irish greens, for black pudding and cream tea, and for Welsh mountain crags. For a small glimpse of little movements of the kingdom gospel in two island nations.
And I also thank God for home, a place to come back to. Both my real home in Ohio, and my new home in Indiana. It’s hard sometimes, but I’m slowly finding a place.
And so here the journey continues. And my work begins.
Soli Deo Gloria!