05 June 2006

england trip, part one

england trip, part one

I intend to set up a separate blog to function for us personally as a kind of family photo album and travel journal of our England trip, but since most folks won't want to wade through nearly 400 photos, I'm posting a (relatively) short version here in two parts.

We flew out of Philadelphia on Sunday evening, 21 May, taking an overnight flight to London. Unfortunately, I don't much care for air travel and so have never slept well on planes. Nevertheless, to my great relief, a couple of glasses of red wine afforded me 3-4 hours of fairly sound sleep.

Upon arriving in London, we invested in a daypass for the Tube, took the underground to our hotel, near King's Cross railway station, and checked in. We talked as we travelled and decided to visit the British Museum and the London Eye, fitting in whatever else we could along the way.

The British Museum is a treasure trove of wonderful artifacts: the Rosetta stone, the Elgin marbles, and so on. The inscription below is from the underbelly of an Assyrian human-headed winged bull dating from nearly 400 BC, which at one time flanked the throneroom of Sennacherib.

This inscription is the most detailed account of the tribute sent by Hezekiah, king of Judah, after Assyria had gained dominance in Palestine in 701 BC.

After the Museum, we made our way towards the River Thames near the Houses of Parliament.

Above you can see the clock tower that contains Big Ben and, in the background, the London Eye observation wheel. Before walking over to the Eye we decided to tour Westminster Abbey.

The Abbey, however, was a bit disappointing. Granted, the place is historically very important, but the admission price is steep, the crowds large even off-season, and much of the Abbey seems more nationalistic and a monument to human achievement than a place of worship. Nevertheless, we were able to find some bits of the church that were personally meaningful to Laurel and me: the tombs of Geoffrey Chaucer and Edmund Spenser, and the Henry VII chapel where the Westminster Divines first met.

From the Abbey we walked over to the London Eye, a 440 foot high observation wheel that overlooks London near Waterloo Station, with 32 enclosed passenger cars that can hold around 25 people each. The views of London from the Eye were pretty spectacular, despite the clouds and drizzle outside.

That evening we stopped by a friendly neighborhood pub for some supper and wonderful, just below room temperature, English ale. By the way, I'm not sure what folks mean when they complain about English cuisine. I find great delight in the variety of meat pies, sausages, game, Yorkshire pudding, interesting cheeses, chutneys, and so on. The food need not be "bland" when properly seasoned (as I found it to be) and, despite some of its seeming "heaviness," I must note that I saw little evidence of obesity plaguing the English as it does Americans.

On Tuesday, 23 May, we took the 45-minute railway journey up to Cambridge to visit various sights there, as well as to meet up with Laurel's cousin and his family, whom the USAF has stationed at a nearby RAF base.

When we arrived the weather was pleasant, though several showers passed over in the course of the day. We dropped our bags at the guest house where we would be staying and proceeded to walk about Cambridge, visiting various churches, museums, and bits of the University's colleges. Since our trip coincided with the examination period, a number of the colleges were closed to visitors. Nevertheless, there was still more than enough to see.

The picture above is of the Round Church, an old Norman church with the round part seen here built around 1130 by the "fraternity of the Holy Sepulchre." The edifice is maintained by Christian Heritage and houses a very informative exhibit on the history of the Christian faith in Britain as well as a well-done video called "Saints and Scholars" on the Christian foundations of Cambridge University.

After a hearty late pub lunch (chicken and ham pie for Laurel, ploughman's for me), we continued to wander the town, visiting several more churches, colleges, shops, and the Fitzwilliam Museum. The picture above shows tourists enjoying a punt on the River Cam.

In the early evening we headed to King's College chapel in order to participate in and enjoy their daily choral evensong service. The west end of the chapel, completed in 1547, is seen below.

Since it was exam time, there wasn't much tourist traffic and so we were able to enjoy a relatively small, intimate evensong service, seated in the quire alongside the choristers who provided beautiful music in the English service music tradition.

After evensong we met up with Laurel's cousin Andy and his family for a brief visit at a coffee shop. Since Andy's in the military and is re-stationed every three years or so (including locations such as Greenland), Laurel's never had much personal contact with him. So it was great to catch up and have some fellowship with them. It turns out Andy has some interest in Reformed philosophy and apologetics, so we hit it off well.

We topped out the day with a nice walk (it remained light outside on a clear evening until at least 10pm), picking up some bottled pints and flavored crisps to enjoy back at the guest cottage. The English, I'll note here, have unusual taste in crisps (i.e., potato chips), including flavors such as "roast lamb and mint" and "chicken tikka masala."

On the morning of Wednesday, 24 May, the eve of Ascension Day, we caught a train back to King's Cross Station in London and, from there, a train up to Durham, about a 3 hour ride. The English countryside, though reminiscent of Pennsylvania in many respects, nonetheless has a character of its own, especially due to a landscape dotted with small tile- and slate-roofed villages, full of stone, brick, and stucco houses, centered around parish churches and the relative lack of suburban sprawl.

Arriving in Durham we glimpsed our first view of Durham's 900 year old cathedral and the nearby castle, set atop a hill overlooking a tight bend in the River Wear. Jeff Steel picked us up from the railway station, as he had offered us hospitality during our stay in Durham, where he is studying Lancelot Andrewes and serving in the Church of England.

That evening, since two of Jeff's kids were acting as acolytes, we attended an installation service for the new rector of the parishes of St. Margaret's and St. John's Neville's Cross, held at St. Margaret's, the oldest bits of which date from 1190. The service was solemn and joyous at the same time, involving various members of the parish, the Lord Mayor, and Bishop Tom Wright who provided a wonderful homily that drew upon themes from Ascension and Pentecost - the reign of Christ and the sending of the Spirit - to address Christian ministry and life these particular parishes.

The next day, 25 May (both the feast of the Ascension and, ordinarily, the commemoration of the Venerable Bede) we travelled an hour and a half north to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, which is only accessible by foot or auto via causeway at low tide.

At the tip of the island stands Lindisfarne Castle, surrounded by fields of grazing sheep, built by Henry VIII in the 1550s with stones taken from the nearby monastery.

The island of Lindisfarne first came to prominence in the 7th century as a base of operations for the evangelization of northern England by St. Aidan and his monks who had migrated from Iona in Scotland to settle at Lindisfarne by the request of King Oswald. The first monastery was built in 635 and was later headed up by St. Cuthbert whose remains are now enshrined at Durham Cathedral. That monastery housed the community that produced the well-known Lindisfarne Gospels, now housed at the British Library in London.

The present ruins of the Benedictine Priory are from an 11th century Norman building that replaced the original monastery which had been repeatedly attacked by Vikings in the 8th and 9th centuries.

We returned from Lindisfarne in the evening once the tide had receded and arrived back in Durham in time to enjoy the Ascension Day liturgy at the cathedral, a beautiful service accompanied by their excellent Cathedral Consort of Singers and with an insightful and edifying homily by the Archdeacon of the diocese.

The next morning, Friday, 26 May, we made our way out to the town of Bishop Auckland, which is the site of Auckland Castle, a 12th century fortified manor house (much altered over the centuries) that had once been the country home for the Bishops of Durham and is now their official residence. The house, which overlooks the River Wear, is surrounded by some more formal gardens and, beyond that, sheep pastures.

Bishop Tom had graciously extended an invitation for us to visit with him. After chatting awhile in his study (which was decorated with cards from his grandson's first birthday party the day before!), we were treated to a personal tour of the castle, which includes a large, gorgeous private chapel built under the direction Bishop Cosin in the 1660s and in which Cosin is buried, along with Bishops J.B. Lightfoot and B.F. Westcott.

Near Bishop Auckland, in the village of Escomb, sits a Saxon parish church that dates from sometime between 670 and 690, and which remains largely unaltered.

To enter the churchyard and church, one must go to a house across the street and retrieve a set of keys from a hook on the porch. The church was built largely of stones plundered from the ruins of the nearby Roman fort at Binchester, across the Wear from Auckland Castle. Though very much off the beaten path, the church is certainly worth a look, as it is one of the few structures in the region that remains intact dating from the time of Sts. Cuthbert and Bede.

In the afternoon we took the 15 minute railway ride up to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a city that was first substantially fortified during the early Norman period, the main keep of which was rebuilt in the 13th century thereby becoming the "new" castle.

In the picture above you can see the "Black Gate" that is attached to the main keep, completed in 1250 and which served as the main entrance to the city at that time. One can also get a sense of how many times the city has been built and re-built, with the mid-19th century brick additions to the gate, a Victorian commercial building behind it, and behind that, the unusual spire of St. Nicholas cathedral, once a parish church, dating from 1448.

We spent a good part of the afternoon, however, in the University of Newcastle's Museum of Antiquities, which houses a stellar collection of artifacts from the Roman occupation of Britain, along with objects going back as far as the Iron Age up through a number of important early English Christian finds.

The main part of the city of Newcastle, however, is full of two main attractions: shopping and bars (as regards the latter, remember that the town houses two universities). In the midst of the largely Victorian shopping district stands the column seen in the picture above, which is topped by a statue of Earl Grey, famous to most folks for his addition of oil of bergamot (extracted from the rind of a variety of orange) to tea. The Earl was a native of Northumbria, an advocate of Parliamentary reform and the revocation of anti-Catholic laws, and eventually became Prime Minister.

After a terrific dinner of Indian food - Laurel had a lamb curry and I a tandoori chicken dish - we returned late to Durham on a crowded, standing-room-only train, full of students who'd come up to Newcastle to enjoy the shopping and nightlife.

(to be continued...)