Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Jane Austen's England

It may seem that this has turned into a travel blog, but the truth is, I have been traveling a lot lately and it's just going to keep going until the end of the year. I've got trips planned every month until December, but the good news is that you, gentle readers, can come along with me! At least feel that you did after the fact when I share the stories and photos from the trips.

On August 12, Kristin, Rachel, and I took to the skies and traveled to merry olde England for a Jane Austen themed trip. We were planning to hit not only the big sight-seeing spots, but also walk in the footsteps of one of the most beloved authors in the English language. Armed with our resident Austen expert (cough Kristin cough) we were ready to see it all!

We took the redeye to London Heathrow on Thursday night and arrived at 8 the next morning. I managed to scam some Ambien from a friend (who shall remain nameless) to ensure that I slept on the flight, since we had a full day of sight-seeing planned immediately upon our arrival. And I cannot function without sleep, it's just a fact. After landing, we hopped the tube (i.e. London Underground, i.e. subway) to downtown London to check in to our hotel, which was in a prime location in the Mayfair District by the Green Park tube stop. And then we were off!

Any visit to London must include a stop at Westminster Abbey. It is, hands down, my favorite London sight as it contains so much British history it gives me a little learning-gasm. From monarchs to artists, some of the most important figures in history are buried here (Elizabeth I, Charles Dickens, etc. etc.). And in Poets Corner, there is a plaque honoring Jane Austen. Hence, it fit right in to theme of our trip. While wandering around, we had some trouble locating it, so we asked a docent where it was. He helpfully pointed it out, but then came back our way a few minutes later with some questions of his own. He asked us, "what is it about Jane Austen that has made her so popular?" and he also wanted to know if we thought her popularity was just a fad brought on by the latest film adaptions of her novels. Kristin eloquently pointed out that the real appeal of Austen lay in her understanding of people and what motivated them to love, laugh, cry, and live. We assured him that the appreciation of her books was NOT a fad, and she would be around for a long time. He tried to talk up the merits of other authors like Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, but we weren't having it. Viva la Austen!

After Westminster Abbey, we wandered down to Trafalgar Square, where Lord Nelson perched on his impressive column flanked by massive stone lions, and took some pictures. By this time, it was starting to rain and we were hungry, so a quick look at our Rick Steve's guidebook confirmed that there was a cafe in the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields across the street. But it wasn't just any cafe--it was located underground in the crypt. It may sound creepy, but it was actually really cool and the food wasn't bad either.

Trafalgar Square. The large domed building on the left is the National Gallery. The spire on the right belongs to St. Martin-in-the-Fields where we had lunch in the crypt.

We were just getting started with our London day, so we hopped on the tube and headed to Kings Cross Station, for a quick visit to Platform 9 and 3/4. That's right, the infamous Harry Potter platform is immortalized at the Kings Cross station to allow for photo opportunities. There's even half a luggage trolley sticking out of the wall as if someone was making their way to the Hogwarts Express.

A quick walk down the road took us to the British Library, where in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery are displayed the treasures of the British Library including the Magna Carta, illuminated bibles, original manuscripts from some of Britain's greatest authors, and handwritten lyrics from The Beatles. It also happens to have Jane Austen's writing desk and some of her original letters. Maybe it's the history dork in me, but it was such a moving experience to see books, letters, and other documents dating back to over a 1,000 years ago. Seeing Austen's letters was for me akin to that moment in Deathly Hallows, when Harry finds the letter from his mother. If I may paraphrase, "here was tangible proof that she had lived--that she had put pen to paper." Very cool.

After the British Library, we decided to maximize our sightseeing time for the afternoon by getting on the Big Bus tour. It's one of those "hop on, hop off" deals, and is a great way to see most of the big sights and get the lay of the land. We rode it all around, getting off at St. Paul's Cathedral. Our hope was to get there before 6 to see the free Evensong service, but unfortunately we just missed it. Bummer. Luckily, the St. Paul area (actually the one mile square area known as "The City" as it was the original London and now the financial district) is home to London's oldest pubs. So we got ourselves some dinner at the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub, most recently rebuilt in 1667. That's right, 1667. There were tables tucked away in every corner, and once you thought a room would end, you'd realize that it just going on in a veritable maze of medieval furnishings. All of the pub tables were full and the dining room appeared to have been completely reserved for later in the evening, but the waiter took pity on three tired American tourists and let us sit in the dining room as long as promised not to linger. The best roast beef and yorkshire pudding I'd ever had and a pint of cider later, things were looking up, and we caught the last Big Bus back to Victoria Station where the tour ended.

At the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese:

On the way we drove over the Tower Bridge, past the Tower of London and the London Eye, over London Bridge, past Marble Arch, and ended up back at the beginning of the tour. From there, it was a quick tube ride back to our hotel and COLLAPSE. Remember, we had gotten at most 4 hours of sleep the night before on the plane and had immediately gotten our sight-seeing on. None of us had any trouble falling asleep that night, and we had the promise of our next day's adventure in front of us: Oxford and a visit to Blenheim Palace!

Here are some more random London photos:

Houses of Parliament and the clock tower (Big Ben is actually the name of the clock inside the tower).

The front of St. Paul's Cathedral, Christopher Wren represent! Also, I hear you can get bird food there for a really food deal. Tuppens a bag or thereabouts.

Lord Nelson atop his column in Trafalgar Square.

Did you know that I have a street? And am a saint. Bitchin.

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