Jane Austen Wrote Here (And Here, Too)

I love traveling with fellow smartasses. It makes the journey so much more enjoyable when you can trade snide jokes with the person standing next to you. Bath was a haven for us in that respect. But let me back up.

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Flowers in a park in Bath

While I’m in London, I actually have to go to school (which totally cuts into my wandering-around-aimlessly time). I think I’ve already alluded to the Shakespeare class I’m in, but I haven’t mentioned the other, far more enviable class. It’s called “Jane Austen to Downton Abbey: Literature of the Country House” and the reading list is spectacular. We just finished Pride and Prejudice and are now 100 pages into Wuthering Heights. Tough work, but someone’s gotta do it. Every class we take a field trip to some literature-y place in London. Thursday we went to British Library and toured their “Treasures of the British Library Collection.” A bit of a step up from the Special Collections I work in back home. Their collection includes a Gutenberg Bible, Jane Austen’s manuscript for Emma, and the original lyrics to “Yesterday” in Paul McCartney’s handwriting. And this is only a few objects. Literally every single major British writer (Shakespeare has his own section) is represented in this display case. (They don’t allow pictures inside or I would share some.)

We were there specifically to see Jane Austen’s writing desk. Now when I said desk, you’re picturing like a chair and table, right? Like something we all had in our college dorm rooms? Nope, it’s like a little tray-thing that flips open to be a flat surface. A little underwhelming but still– How cool! Jane Austen literally write on this thing. You almost want to press your face against the glass and see if you can catch some of that creative spirit, but not really because that would look really weird.

We wandered around until making our way to (where else?) the gift shop. Let me just say that the British Library is losing its mind over this whole Magna Carta anniversary thing, and it’s really starting to show. The Magna Carta will be 800 years old this year (Isn’t it marked on your calendar?), and the British Library is super excited and wants you to be, too. They sell (I’m not making any of this up): Magna Carta facsimiles, bound copies, CDs, pillows, soap, whiskey, and rubber ducks. So you could hypothetically sit in the tub listening to Magna Carta music, drinking your Magna Carta whiskey, while you read the Magna Carta to your Magna Carta rubber duck before going to sleep on your Magna Carta pillow. But there’s this desperation in their celebration. Like “Please care about this as much we do! This is such a big deal until 2040 when the Magna Carta is 825, and we try to sell you the same stuff all over again!” (For real though, as someone who has written papers about obscure works of art, I totally get their vibe.)

I just bought a Jane Austen Christmas ornament. Because it didn’t happen unless you got the Christmas ornament to prove it, right?

Friday we went to Bath where Jane Austen spent some time during her life. Bath totally embodies my theory that England can perfectly balance past and present. Like, you pass an Apple store on the way to the Roman baths. Which prompted many smart-ass remarks of “Did Jane Austen get her iPhone here? Did she shop at that Urban Outfitters? Isn’t there a scene in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy goes into a Tesco?” We had lunch at a local pub where they display Jane Austen’s picture (making all of my #JaneAustenDrankHere dreams come true!). I don’t think she actually drank here, but whatever. Let me dream, okay?

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#JaneAustenDrankHere
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The pub where we had lunch

We toured the Roman baths for about an hour. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Bill Bryson has a little audio tour here. I’m trying to read his book on the U.K. called Notes from a Small Island, and I can’t get into it yet. But he has a nice voice. Also, I hate to brag, but I’m basically an audio guide connoisseur at this point. Just a little something for the CV. (But can I still be a connoisseur if I had to look up how to spell “connoisseur”?)

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Roman baths
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Sculpture of Roman emperor with Bath Abbey in the background
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Goddess Minerva who was worshipped at the Roman temple

The baths are really cool, or well, warm. They take you through a tour about how it used to be a huge temple complex, too. I won’t bore you with all the history of it because I have already forgotten most of it. However, I do remember that at the end there is little tasting room. Well, not a room. More like a corner with a sink in it. And the famous Bath water. It reminded me of the scene in The Office when they get the aluminum water bottles from Sabre, and they’re like “It tastes like I’m drinking batteries!” Yeah, Bath water is like drinking batteries. Or, as Charles Dickens said, like “warm flat irons.” They put that quote on the wall next to the sink! Like they’re proud  of their weird water! And we all have to go along with it because it’s historic. It’s the Emperor’s New Water.

Their gift shop was really cool, though. They sell lots of soap. Bath bath soap. And little bottles of their water which you would buy, presumably, for your enemies. (The sore throat I’ve had this weekend developed after drinking the water in case you were wondering why I’m so bitter about it.) And they had Latin translations of the first two Harry Potter books. Which I kinda regret not getting. Because no one taught me Latin in my 13 years of Catholic school, then I should probably learn it from a book about witchcraft, right?

After the baths, we went to the Royal Crescent which was basically the Hollywood Hills of 18th-century Britain. More “Did Jane Austen touch this lamppost?!” jokes. After that some of use noticed a church higher up the hill (Bath is like a giant hill), and when you’re wearing shoes with poor arch support and you see something that’s far away on a hill, you should go look at it. Bonus points if you’re a little dehydrated.

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Royal Crescent
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The church that was closed
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Bath Abbey– also closed when we got back to the town center

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After we traipsed up the hill and discovered the church was locked, we walked around Avon Lake that runs though the town. They have a small pet cemetery in the park next to it. Then we bought some gross sandwiches for the ride home.

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Avon River
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Avon River
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Street art

Okay, before I end this: is Bath named for the Roman baths? Like, was everyone just like “We have these bath things, let’s just call it “Bath”? Bill Bryson did not talk about this in the audio tour.

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In Use

Yesterday was the State Opening of Parliament. According to the woman in charge of our study abroad in England (There is a “Lady” before her name. I honestly wasn’t sure if we were supposed to curtsy to her.) this is happening May and not November because of the recent election. Because the government class I took in high school was basically a joke (played on us), I don’t know much about the UK’s parliamentary government. But I have strung together little clues from movies like The Young Victoria and The Queen, and apparently the new prime minister (usually played by Michael Sheen) has to form a government in the queen’s name. Apparently they got it together faster than everyone expected which is why I saw the Queen yesterday.

As the Head of State, only the Queen can open Parliament. Thankfully for the tourists, this is not a let’s-take-the-black-car-through-the-back-gate type of affair. It’s more of a shut-down-the-Mall-strike-up-the-band parade.

We decided to play it safe and arrived at the Mall around 9:45 so we had a great view next to the barricades. We chatted with a woman who was on “holiday from the West Country” and had decided to play tourist like us. Behind us was a tall, older man who served in the Royal Air Force and was stationed in Canada and Africa during his career. He told us little things about the military present as we waited: you can distinguish the different regiments by the spacing of the buttons on their red coats and only the Queen’s carriage is accompanied by white horses. And he was wearing a cravat so he was obviously a credible source.

While we waited, the foot guards were moved into their places. They would march along the side of the road then turn and back into position. A few minutes later one of their commanders came by with a giant compass (like those kind you used in high school math) and would turn it as he walked to get the spacing between the guards exact. Later he came by again to the soldiers on our side of the Mall who were in the sun and would adjust their covers to cool them. Or at least that’s what I assume he was doing. Every few minutes someone would yell out an intelligible command that was telling them to wiggle their toes. I don’t know if that’s true or if Mr. Cravat was just pulling our legs.

More waiting. We mercilessly held our ground as more people arrived and tweens in school uniforms tried to get closer. (Sorry, kids, but we flew 4,000 miles to be here. Your school is a few blocks away. We’re standing in front.) More regiments marched past eventually followed by a marching band. All of this gave us time to get our cameras ready. Suddenly a posh-looking car whizzed past going toward Buckingham Palace. We had just enough time to realize that Charles and Camilla were in the back seat.

After about an hour, more regiments of The Queen’s Guards started marching past followed by the band. Then there were shouts of “royal salute!” and Charles and Camilla rode by again, this time in a carriage. Then “royal salute!” again, and there she was. Sitting next to Prince Phillip in the Jubilee Coach in a white dress, Queen Elizabeth II rode past us. She is probably one of the most photographed people in the world, but seeing her in person was something new entirely. Princess Anne and some other official-looking people rode after, and we started walking back to the Tube station.

On the way, we past a crowd in St. James Parks and decided to see what they were looking at. About 100 yards away were six canons that fired 21 gun salute (I assume. I lost count of the number of times they fired, but 21 seems a likely number). Thank goodness we saw them. If we’d just been walking back and suddenly heard explosions, we would not have calmly thought “Oh, obviously just a 21 gun salute.” We walked back to the Tube and returned to the university for lunch.

If you’d gone to the Tower of London that day, the Imperial State Crown would have been missing. Instead of a lavish proclamation that Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith was wearing the crown to open the Parliament of the United Kingdom, there is just a small sign that reads “In Use.” On September 9 which is only 103 days from now, the HM Elizabeth II will surpass Queen Victoria and become the longest reigning monarch in British history. In use, indeed.

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The Queen’s Guard
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It was hot in the sun. I imagine even worse in that cover.
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The Calvary
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Charles and Camilla
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The Queen and Prince Philip

I Can’t See What You’re Laughing At

Today I saw my first play at the Globe. We (my Shakespeare class) left campus and arrived with enough time to peruse the gift shop. I love gift shops. I don’t know if it’s an art history thing (a lot of my art history friends like them too) or just good ol’ materialism, but I love them. They sell erasers with the Macbeth line “Out damned spot!” I think I rather have a Tide-To-Go with that on it if I’m being honest.

We saw As You Like It which is part of their season called “Justice and Mercy.” Since this play is basically a romantic comedy in iambic pentameter, I have no idea how it fits in this season’s theme. But whatever. It was funny anyway.

We got there too late (too much gift shop time) to stand with the groundlings so we sat over to the side of the stage. Along with several pillars blocking center stage. We could see most everything that happened in the play as the cast moved through the crowd, but they seemed to have the best (physical comedy) jokes at center stage. We just laughed too so no one would think we were just losers who couldn’t see what was happening. But we were just losers who couldn’t see what was happening.

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Our view
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Inside the Globe
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Inside the Globe (You can only take pictures when no one is onstage apparently)
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Walked to the Tube via the Millennium Bridge to see St. Paul’s. Fellow Harry Potter geeks: this is the bridge the Death Eaters tear up at the beginning of the sixth movie.
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Saint Paul’s

The Bank Holiday

“Bank holiday” was not a part of my vocabulary until last week, but now I think I’ll use it for the rest of my life. It’s exactly what you think it is: the banks are closed and everyone has the day off. It being my first bank holiday, I had no idea what to do. Leave the city? Spend the day in the park? Where will the crowds be? In the end I made the most tourist-y decision possible: the Tower of London and Kensington Palace for the day.

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View of Tower Bridge and the Thames from the Tower of London

To me, the Tower and it’s surrounding area epitomizes London. It’s a 1000 year old fortress built by William the Conquerer; it saw the coronation and later the execution of Anne Boleyn; it holds an incredible collection of crown jewels; and more recently it held the medals before the 2012 London Olympics. At the same time it’s surrounded by the skyscrapers of London like the Shard (the tallest building in Europe). Only London could put the two buildings in the same skyline and make it seem perfectly natural.

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The Shard as seen from the Tower

We jumped in line to see the Crown Jewels right away, following the advice of the woman at the ticket counter. Apparently she gave the same advice to everyone else since the line wrapped around the building. We accidentally cut in front of some people before they politely told us to move to the back of the line. It was like A Christmas Story when they’re waiting to see Santa.

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Waiting to see the crown jewels

The wait to see the crown jewels is very similar to the wait for Splash Mountain. The line wraps around outside several times and you think “That wasn’t so bad! We’re almost inside!” But then there’s another line for 20 minutes, but you don’t mind because you’re out of the sun and now there’s stuff to look at. They give you the Sparknotes history of the monarchy and the jewels like Disney gives you whatever story leads to the ride. About half-way through there is (what can only be described as) a crown jewel hype video– lots of intense choral music plays as paintings with past monarchs wearing their jewels fade in and out. In the next room there is this odd animation about the coronation process. Really? We’re about to see the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and you’re saving money with this cheap animated video?

They know how to keep the crowds moving though. Once they lead you through the room that has the coronation spoon (to hold the anointing oil and not for the coronation porridge as we’d all predicted) and QEII’s gold robe, you get to the jewels in a massive display case. They put the lines onto a short moving sidewalk like in the airport so you glide by and can’t crowd around. Pretty brilliant.  When they remove the Imperial State Crown for the Opening of Parliament, they just put in a small sign that reads “In use.”

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The ravens: legend has it that if the ravens leave the Tower, the British empire will fall (so they clip their wings).

Once we hit the main attraction, we explored the outer walls that included an exhibition on the zoo animals (lions and tigers and bears- oh my!) who used to live in the Tower. Apparently one king had a pet polar bear, and occasionally they would put a robe around it and let it swim in the Thames. After that it was an overpriced lunch at the cafe but it was so nice to have something that tasted homemade, it was worth the price.

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Part of my delicious, overpriced lunch
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Memorial to those executed at the Tower including Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, both married to Henry VIII
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The White Tower that featured an exhibition on armor and displayed pieces belonging to Henry VIII
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Traitors’ Gate: how all prisoners arrived at the Tower (including Elizabeth I)
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Just a cool stained glass window in the medieval palace
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Queen Victoria in front of Kensington Palace

After spending most of the morning at the Tower, I took the Circle line farther to Kensington Palace. Having watched The Young Victoria the night before, I was so excited to see Queen Victoria’s childhood home. They have several of her dresses from her youth and one of her mourning gowns she wore after Prince Albert’s death (they also have the small tiara she always wore at the Tower). They also display some of Emily Blunt’s — er, Queen Victoria’s diary entries from her life with Prince Albert. A lovely exhibition overall. After that there was a small exhibition called “Fashion Rules” featuring dresses worn by the Queen, Princess Margaret, and Princess Diana. Kensington is kinda girly now that I think about it.

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the Queen’s dresses
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They used these really cool paper costumes in other parts of the Palace

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Once I saw a guide, I had to ask “Where do the current royals (i.e. Will and Kate) live when they’re at Kensington?” Apparently those apartments are on the other side of the “Queen’s Apartments” exhibition. They also rarely give notice when they’re coming, but the place is so big the palace can be open when they’re in town.  Also Prince William hosted a party in part of the “King’s Apartments” exhibition with dancing in the gardens, or so the guide told me. I wonder if it was on a bank holiday.

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They know what sells.

Crashing a Confirmation

Catholic guilt won’t let me go five weeks without going to Mass despite the English Reformation. This is how I found myself in St. James Catholic Church today and the Sunday before. Forgive me for saying so but most Catholic churches in the south tend to be pretty sparse in their decorations. St. James does not follow  this minimalist design aesthetic. There’s a Communion rail. An actual Communion rail that they use. Growing up in the post-Vatican II Church did not prepare me for this. So exciting.

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Inside St. James Church

Supposedly the Mass is the same everywhere. I can’t personally say if this is true everywhere, but in England it is. They are a little more polite in their responses though. Like in the intercessions they say “Lord, graciously hear us” instead of “Lord, hear our pray.” See? More polite.

I was very excited about noon Mass (perfect time of day) until I arrived and realized that it was also a Confirmation. Complete with local bishop. They didn’t kick me out or anything, and since I wasn’t the only one in jeans, I assume not everyone was there for the Confirmation part. The bishop’s homily about his recent trip to Iraq was interesting. Especially considering that at my Confirmation the homily alone was an hour, and the archbishop told us to “Get high on the Holy Spirit.” I’m not making this up.

After wandering about the high street and regretting not going to the all-day brunch place, I found yet another bookshop. (This blog should really be called “Cathedrals and Bookshops: A Nerd Goes England”) This one was cute and more “local feeling” than Waterstones. I thought of the books waiting for me at the dorm and bought nothing. But I’ll be back.

Later a group of us went to Camden Market expecting a flower show. Instead we found an alternative outdoor market. We arrived just as it started to rain. The food (always the best part) was amazing and featured a ridiculous variety of choices: Nutella crêpes to Argentine street food to squid ink pasta to calamari. And I don’t eat calamari so Nutella crêpes it was.

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Nutella crepe
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Camden Market food

Rosings– Er, I mean, Burghley House

Another close call to the trains today. (We really need to get more organized.) Today’s train was an hour to Peterborough where we had an hour layover until we went to Stamford. Most elected to stay in the train station to eat, but I and another girl went into the town — about a 10 minute walk from the station.

There was a small festival happening in Peterborough which may have been for the holiday weekend, but clichés would have me believe that small English countryside towns just have festivals every weekend. We decided to look inside the local parish church that was hosting a small exhibition on walking by an artist whose name I can’t remember. Outside the church there was a small area that had small power lines with shoes hanging over the wires. It reminded me of the small town from Big Fish.  The church interior was really beautiful, and after Westminster where everything is behind ropes, it was nice to move freely throughout the space. Part of the exhibition was inside where there were quotations about the glory of walking. (I thought of these later during the day as we walked everywhere. Finally tally according to my phone was about 13 miles.) The artist sat in one area washing feet and giving foot massages. We politely declined to participate because we had a train to catch. And because gross. 

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Inside the parish church
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One of the quotations on walking

Once we left, we realized that the real cathedral was behind the parish church. Stunning. It might as well have been built in Pillars of the Earth. However they charge three pounds to take photos inside. So I did not take photos inside.

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Exterior shot of the cathedral because three pounds is stupid.

We went to Stamford and had lunch there. The food was amazing, but we were more excited about the prices. Six pounds for lunch? Woo-hoo! Stamford is something out of a story book. Only about 20,000 residents with cute shops and restaurants all framed by the nearby river. We got lost on the way (not my fault) but eventually walked the long sheep-covered driveway up to Burghley House. Yep there were sheep everywhere since the original Lord Burghley made his money in wool. They were so cute and looked lazily at us while we snapped pictures pretending like we’d never seen sheep before. Well, not British sheep.

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British sheep
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Street view of Stamford

Once inside we photographed all of the incredible rooms that included a personal chapel and Queen Elizabeth I’s bedroom. The original Lord Burghley was her treasurer, and as a lord he had to keep a bedroom ready for her in case she ever showed up. She did visit once, but someone in the house had the nerve to have smallpox so she couldn’t stay the night. Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, George VI, and the Queen Mother did stay the night in another part of the house during their respective visits. Amongst the parlors, bedrooms, drawing rooms etc. is the main staircase that is called “The Hell Staircase.” Why you’d pick this as a scene for your staircase I’m not sure, but it’s stunning all the same.

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Queen Elizabeth I’s bedroom
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The Hell Staircase

Was I thinking about any this while I was there? No I was more concerned with another legend: Judi Dench. Burghley House was used as Rosings Park in the newest Pride and Prejudice film with Keira Knightley. Which is really cool. After asking the guides enough “respectable” questions about the paintings, I finally summoned the courage to ask: “Which room was in the movie?” It was one of the many drawing rooms with a special name I can’t remember. I got a picture of the couch, too.

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Rosings Park room
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Judi Dench sat here
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Burghley House

Henry VIII Drank Here: Hampton Court Palace

When I was nine, my extended family took a trip to New York, and we had to make a connecting flight through Atlanta. We took the train that runs between the terminals, and as we all made a dash to catch it, one of my aunts got left behind. For some reason I found the event kind of traumatizing and ever since I’ve always done my best to never miss trains like that. (I should probably mention that the Atlanta airport train is incredibly easy to maneuver and my aunt took the next one and met up with us 10 minutes later. None of this occurred to me when I was nine.) All of this came back today as out group made a frantic dash to the Jubilee line train during the Friday morning rush hour. I felt the carriage door hit my shoulder as I barely made it on board. Didn’t need much coffee after that. The ride out to Hampton Court Palace by train was so relaxing that most of us dozed off. Still, at 45 minutes long, I wish I’d brought a book to read. Instead I had to make to make due with watching the English countryside roll by. Oh, well. On the way back it was only my fear that I would miss the stop that kept me awake. (Apparently I have some problems with train rides.) IMG_0707 Throughout the day at Hampton Court there are small plays around the palace. We discovered this by accident when were standing in Base Court trying to organize audio guides when suddenly there were drums and violins and Tudor-dressed actors dancing in the center of the yard. I almost successfully turned my laugh into a cough. Almost. We gave up on the audio tour pretty quickly. Nothing was clearly marked, and honestly unless Jeremy Irons is narrating, it’s not as interesting. Also, apparently Hampton Court employs food historians. Food historians. And my (future) art history degree is useless? Having given up on the audio guide, I had to rely on (Heaven forbid) the written placards in the different rooms. I know. It was like the ’90s or something. I wish I had more interesting facts to share about the palace (because who doesn’t love a mildly obnoxious history lesson in a blog post?) but what struck me more about the place was how we were walking around where so many powerful, historical people have lived here. Walking around in jeans and a T-shirt I bought at Target, it can be difficult to imagine Henry VIII marrying Katherine Parr in the other room or Shakespeare performing in the Great Hall.

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The carved ceiling over the entryway.
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The Great Hall
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Gardens
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The other side of Hampton Court that was built by William III

We ended the trip with a tour of the gardens and then lunch at this disgusting riverside restaurant. Where’s a food historian when you need one?IMG_0673 IMG_0712