Thursday we got up early to drive to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see Shakespeare's birthplace. The town is extremely beautiful, though also quite tourist-oriented; from the main parking lots one must walk through a little park by the river and then down two blocks of lovely, expensive gift stores before reaching the Shakespeare house. The gardens around sculptures of Shakespeare's characters were in full bloom, both flowering trees and hundreds of bulbs; there were boats on the water, and swans, and hundreds of people just sitting on the grass enjoying the sunshine of another warm, bright day.
Shakespeare's birthplace has been restored several times since the house became open to the public, and the guest registry shows that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson visited it together; there are also panes of glass on display that used to be in one of the bedroom windows upon which many people etched their initials as proof that they'd been there, from Ellen Terry to Walter Scott. Before entering the house proper, there's an exhibit on Shakespeare's life and work, including a model of the original globe that looks strikingly like the full-size reproduction in London.
I was surprised at how wealthy the Shakespeares were; I knew he hadn't grown up poor and had gone to a good school, but the house seemed large and nicely furnished, with bright tapestries and color on the walls. The guides talked more about the furnishings of the home than what sketchy details are known about the lives of Shakespeare and his siblings, but there were nice exhibits on tanning leather and storing food in the pre-Elizabethan era.
We had decided to have a literary day Thursday and a Pagan day on Good Friday when lots of museums were closed, so we put off Stonehenge another day, scrapped plans to go to Birmingham so we could visit Avebury, and thus went from Stratford straight to Oxford. We parked outside the city and took a double decker bus in, which allowed us to see the beautiful houses before entering the university area. In terms of sheer volume of magnificent ancient buildings, Oxford far exceeded anything we had seen before.
We went first to the Ashmolean Museum to see the Pre-Raphaelites and landscape paintings there before the kids got tired and crazy, then we briefly stepped into the Bodelian Library before heading over to Christ Church College which was of principal interest to the kids because of its Harry Potter connections. The Great Hall was open, though the portraits on the walls didn't move or talk and there was a physical ceiling rather than a reflection of the night sky, though the boys were impressed with the paintings of Henry VIII and his associates and with the huge dining tables and fireplace.
We went to the chapel, which cleverly had a scavenger hunt for kids to find interesting gargoyles and faces on the walls, though one of the Jesus illustrations on an altar was covered for Lent. Burne-Jones had designed many of the stained glass windows in the church, and the ceilings and carvings on the sides of the pews were intricate and intimate -- not as vast and foreboding as St. Paul's, a more powerful place to spend Maundy Thursday as far as I was concerned.
After the chapel we walked around the grounds of the college including more beautiful gardens and students sitting shirtless in the windows of the centuries-old dormitories. Then we walked through Oxford proper looking for a place to have dinner, stopping in bookstores (though Paul was disappointed that the Alice In Wonderland shop had closed before we got there, we did see the tree that the real-life Dinah had frequented). We saw things like the duplicate of the Bridge of Sighs in Venice and the spectacular ancient Catholic church. I was surprised at how little information there was on Lewis and Tolkien compared to Carroll. We ended up having Indian food again (Daniel's insistence, and I never object to Indian) at a place called Café Zouk that was exceptional, especially the chicken korma and biryani. We were the only people in the place, since it was early by British standards for dinner, and we talked with the immigrant owner and his niece about changes in British coins and the neighborhood since they'd arrived in the 1980s.
We got back late and got up early to join holiday weekend traffic heading west out of the city en route to Stonehenge. Many people had warned me that I would be disappointed -- that visitors couldn't approach the stones, that it was really just a bunch of rocks in a field. Those people are cracked. It's true that Stonehenge feels more tourist-oriented than Glastonbury Tor, in that the stones are protected by a rope barrier and there's a sophisticated information center with gift shop and restaurant, but the plus side of that is that for the cost of admission, visitors get to walk under the nearest road while listening to a handheld audio tour that lasts about half an hour and contains a great deal of information.
As for the stones themselves, I don't think any number of photos could have prepared me for the size and scope of Stonehenge. I was sorry not to be able to walk among them and touch them, but that's a small price to pay to protect them from vandals. For some reason the British seem determined to pooh-pooh anything mystical connected to Stonehenge, as even the audio tour went on at length debunking myths (the Druids probably have no connection to the standing stones, Uther Pendragon probably isn't buried there, etc.) but it's impossible not to learn all the scientific implications of the placement of the millennia-old stones and not get chills, or at least it was for me.
We had another absolutely perfect day, weather-wise -- not a cloud in the sky, warm enough to wear short sleeves despite a breeze, and the stones were very gray against a deep blue sky with fields in the background alternately green and gold with flowers and grass, plus sheep grazing just behind the monument. There were quite a lot of people and the parking lot was quite full but we never felt crowded. I was sorry afterwards that we hadn't held the audio recording up to the video camera and taped it all the way around Stonehenge.
After another lunch en route, we arrived at Avebury, which I had originally scratched off the agenda so we'd have time to go to Birmingham another day until ladymoonray convinced me to reconsider. I am so glad she did. Unlike Stonehenge, which is spectacular but somewhat remote, the stone circle at Avebury goes right around and through the village, including markers for stones that are no longer standing. We could walk right up and touch them, lean against them to take pictures, and walk in a circular trail around them that went past the old farmhouse and church in the center of town.
The tourist center is in a chapel that was actually holding Good Friday services, but we arrived while they were outside doing the Stations of the Cross so we were able to see it briefly. We walked the perimeter of the semicircle that rises high on a hill on one side of town, giving beautiful views of fields of yellow flowers and lots of grazing animals that could be smelled as well as seen occasionally when the wind changed direction. The parking lots are a bit out of town so while there were many tourists, it felt even less crowded than Stonehenge, with people spread out across several fields by the dozens of stones.
Right near Avebury is the West Kennett Long Barrow, an enormous burial mound with a stone chamber at one end that's about half a mile walk from the road, crossing over a small stream. On this magnificent day we hiked up and inside the open chamber, which is even older than the stone circle in Avebury, though the tombs were desecrated over the years by people searching for bones and treasure. At the top of the barrow I felt a bit the way I had felt atop Glastonbury Tor, looking out at miles of perfect countryside and Silbury Hill, another enormous burial mound.
We drove back through a bunch of little towns including Marlborough, which has a gorgeous university and a main street that's a wonderful mix of old buildings and new stores -- like Oxford, only more Dickensian. Unfortunately we got stuck in more horrible holiday traffic on the London Orbital, exacerbated by an accident that closed several lanes, so we didn't get back to Catford until almost 8 p.m. I took the boys swimming one last time in the apartment complex pool while Paul ran down to the store before it closed to get dinner. We ate chicken cottage pie very late, but going to bed late had been on the agenda anyway so boys would be on a schedule to sleep later and stay up the next night for the theater. I believe that we're seeing 'My Fair Lady' courtesy my friend Veronica who is also giving me a private tour of the Pre-Raphaelites at the Tate tomorrow. And we'll see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace!
Hope everyone is having a divine Passover and Tenebrae. Thanks so much everyone who has written or left comments; I promise to write back as soon as I can get a connection that costs less than a bloody fortune!