Chris Allen, a professor at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, is currently on trip to London with a group of communication students. While there, he took a trip to Wales, a country in southwest Great Britain known for its rugged coastline, mountainous national parks, distinctive Welsh language and Celtic culture.
I almost missed one of the coolest things ever because of my unwillingness to ask a question.
Last Saturday, I had a free day. I ate a leisurely breakfast, showered, changed and considered what to do with the day. I had no plans at all. I toyed with the idea of seeing a play in the evening, visiting some of the remarkable museums, walking to some new part of the city and exploring markets or sitting in Russell Square reading a book.
And suddenly I knew. I wanted to go to York. I wanted to see York Minster. It was getting on in the morning, and I wavered going at all. I didn’t know if I’d have enough time. But I grabbed a jacket and an umbrella, walked to King’s Cross station, stood in line for a ticket and took the chance. The train boarded at 11:15 a.m., to arrive in York at 12:45 p.m.
Let me just say that riding on a train is an unbelievably comfortable experience. I chose a “quiet” car — cell phone ringers off, no noisy children, no loud conversations. I watched the city roll by for the first 10 or 15 miles, then the open green countryside of rural England. I was on an express, so we flashed by towns and villages, passed grazing cattle and sheep and flew under scudding dark clouds. The threat of rain followed us all the way to York. The Virgin train was fast (about 70 mph), smooth and quiet. What it was not is cheap. British train travel, while wonderfully civilized, is expensive.
York was founded by the Romans in 71 CE, the northernmost outpost of the empire. It is at the confluence of the Ouse and Foss river, and was prone, not surprisingly, to flooding. Nonetheless, it became a busy trade center. Christianity came along sometime before 300 CE. It is an unbelievably beautiful medieval city that retains most of its city wall. In fact there is a walk that includes the wall, and stairways lead up to the top, where anyone can stroll.
I was there for one main purpose: to see the enormous York Minster. A minster is a sort of supercathedral. Think of Westminster Abbey, seat of the Church of England. By 311, York already had an archbishop but work on the minster didn’t begin until about 627. It was a wooden structure that eventually burned to the ground. Several other attempts did, too. When the Romans left, the Angles settled. Then the Vikings came along, then Anglo-Saxons, William the Conquerer and so on. It was batted about by various invaders and settlers, and its fortunes rose and fell with them.
In the 11th century, York became an important religious center, with a number of abbeys of friars and monks located there. They all ended in 1435 when Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church and declared himself the spiritual leader of the new Church of England.
The current minster was started about 1080, still a Catholic outpost. It was declared completed in 1472, when it was consecrated as a building of the Church of England. This is the church I set out to see.
I walked through the Micklegate and the narrow road led me toward the river.
I chose to sit outside a pub for lunch, but just as I ordered, the rain began. We all retreated inside until it stopped, and by then, after fish and chips, it was nearly 3 p.m. The last train to London was at 8 p.m., and I had an opened-end ticket, but I had to use it that day.
I had no idea where the minster was, and I didn’t want to ask, so I just began walking. I came upon the remains of the 11th century castle and the castle museum. By the time I finished those it was after 4 p.m., and the sky opened up. The umbrella gave me a moving cocoon of dryness, but from the knees down I was soaked. Then I found a map and figured out I was in possibly far from the minster, I couldn’t figure out the buses, I didn’t want to ask, and I gave up trying to see it. I had come all that way and would miss York Minster.
Somewhat miserably, feeling terribly sorry for myself, I started back the way I came, but I took a detour. This led me to another ancient church, a busy shopping center and another map. And this map showed me I was about three blocks from York Minster. And then I did that one thing I had been reluctant to do: I asked a local, who confirmed it was just up the street. I quickened my step and arrived at the Minster to see a young guide standing in front of the closed entrance. I glanced at my watch. It was 5:15 p.m.
“Closed?” I asked.
“Yes, we’re closed for Evensong. You can join Evensong if you like, though. It just started.”
“How long will it be?”
“I have to catch a train by 8,” I said.
“Oh, plenty of time. When you come out, just walk straight down this street, through the gate in the wall, and you’ll be at the station. It’s no more than 10 minutes.”
So I walked in. An usher showed me to a seat — there are no pews, mostly folding chairs — and handed me a program. The choir was in full voice, the pipe organ filled the air, and my soul was warmed.
And here is the unmissed opportunity. Had I found the minster when I first arrived, I would have paid admission and walked around with a guidebook and my camera. I would have marveled at the stained-glass windows, the soaring heights, the crypts of the archbishops who lay buried nearby. I would have admired the carvings, the immensity of the structure itself, the history of the place. I would have enjoyed every moment I was there.
But this was more because I got to not only sit in one of the grand structures in Britain, but I got to experience “why” it was there. I got to experience not just the church, but the “purpose” of the church.
I listened to the sung psalms, some accompanied by the organ, some a capella. The choir was mostly male. A few females supplied the upper ranges, but most of the soprano and alto voices were those of boys. The gravity of the readings that separated the psalms echoed through the church almost lost in their own reverberation, but the chants and intonations of the choir were clear and crisp.
I walked out so happy that I had found it after it had closed to tourists. At the conclusion, we were not hurried out into the street. We were allowed to walk around and take all the photos we wanted. No one came to shoo us away. I got the best of both. Forty-five minutes earlier, I would have missed the true meaning of York Minster.
There is an old saying that says the early bird catches the worm. The corollary to that, of course, is that the late worm does not get eaten. I was the late tourist last Saturday, and I got the entire meal.
I strolled back to the station, got something to eat on the return journey, boarded the train 15 minutes later and headed back to London in the steeply slanted sunlight of a late British evening. Clouds still lingered, but broken enough to let through golden rays.
And as I looked out the window opposite to me, a rainbow arced into the heavens. A sign? Nah. Just a coincidence. I settled into the comfortable seat and watched night fall on England.
Brasenose College, one of the 35 colleges that make up Oxford University, has produced a few distinguished alumni — and probably more dubious ones. Among the more impressive are an archbishop of Canterbury, a prime minister of the United Kingdom and one of Australia, the alleged inventor of rugby, a couple of minor playwrights, some poets, a World War II codebreaker and one of the physicians to King George III, who lost the United States to the revolution.
Brasenose is a Harry Potter-like setting, all ancient stone buildings, heavily timbered ceilings in the dining hall, a soaring chapel with a massive pipe organ, a closely clipped fine grass central green and stolid academic reputation that dates to its beginning in 1509. The history oozes from its walls.
Students on our trip to London get to make a brief tour of the college (which it charges for in an effort to raise cash any way it can), and it’s impressive. At least the first 10 or 12 times, you walk along the preordained path. By the 15th time, a certain sense of sameness sets in and one finds one’s self standing at the door-within-a-gate entry into the college not really wanting to go through it again, even with one’s favorite guide leading the way.
So I didn’t. I watched my students walk into the stately grounds, and I hightailed it around the corner to a covered market that I knew of. Perhaps, I’d find a bit of jewelry to bring home, or a cute, tiny baby outfit for my granddaughter for her birthday. Maybe I’d sit down for a cup of coffee and a great pastry. Or maybe I’d just do some browsing and look at all on offer.
As I neared the market just the next block on, I noticed traffic cones set outside of the opening. As in Omaha, Neb., traffic cones are a common sight in Britain during the summer. But there were a couple of police cars, a very classy silver Jaguar and people milling about as well. There was also a flatbed tow truck whose driver was hooking a cable to the front of a an offending Kia or something like that sitting outside the market.
I walked around all this unchallenged and sauntered into the market. I was at the grocery end of things, so I took my time passing by the fruit and vegetable stands, the fish mongers and the butchers. One of the butchers boasts of owning the oldest ham in existence, a blackened hunk of meat shriveled to a hard slab that looks like an instrument used in some sort of fraternity initiation ritual. Yep, on display, with the whole story, in one of the chill cases.
I wandered back toward the clothing stalls, and I rounded a corner to find a mass of photographers and two videographers. Being a journalism teacher, I realized someone impressive was visiting the Oxford Covered Market. I strained to see who, but I couldn’t see through the somewhat shabbily dressed journalists and the impeccably dressed aides, all of them men, every one men, surrounding the dignitary. I figured it was a foreign ambassador, perhaps from Japan, the Congo, maybe Belarus, come to see the right way to do a covered market. Or perhaps a movie star like Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow or Meryl Streep looking for the proper gifts to take home after filming a few scenes nearby.
I visited a few other spots then came upon them all again as I returned to the front. Again I strained to see. Nope. I last saw the press amoeba moving past the cheese seller, and I almost stopped to ask who the dignitary was, but the look on their faces warned me against that. Besides the mass was moving toward me and I didn’t want to be absorbed into it and swept away. One last time I tried to see who I was missing. Nada. Oh, there was one young woman in the group, though, and she was the one doing all the explaining to the mystery guests.
So I left the mob and glanced at the Jaguar as I did to see a tall, thin gentlemen dressed in the most splendid blue and red livery, gold tassels hanging from braided ropes looped about his shoulders, pointed hat perched perfectly atop his head. He should have been sitting on a golden carriage holding the reins of a team of horses. Instead, he was climbing into the right side (this “is” Britain) of the Jag only to grip the leather-wrapped steering wheel.
My students arrived at the the university bookstore about 10 minutes after I did, several blocks away from the market. They bought some souvenirs, and we all got back on the coaches to drive on to Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of a William Shakespeare, to have a tour of that very spot (I went and had lunch — I’m familiar with that place buy now, too), thence on to Warwick Castle to conclude a full day’s adventure in sightseeing.
About five miles down the road, our guide, Norma, whom I’ve known now for 17 years, said, “Did you see all the traffic around the market?”
“Yes,” I answered, “I was there.”
“Really,” she said. “Did you see who was there?”
“No, I never got a good look.”
“Well one of the shopkeepers told me it was Prince Charles and Camilla.”
“No kidding,” I said. “Nope, I never got a good look. I saw all the press around them. Never saw them.”
I was that close, and I didn’t actually see them. I wish I’d tried harder, but I didn’t. I just wasn’t that interested in seeing the ambassador from Belarus. Damn.
But here’s the thing: I was dressed in casual slacks, a slightly rumpled UNO polo shirt, a red-and-black field jacket that’s been around the world but still holds its own and New Balance shoes.
The heir to the throne was in the covered market. There were a couple of officers outside. Nothing was blocked off. People were coming and going, as I was. There was no security checkpoint, people were carrying bags and purses, women and men were transacting business, all while the next King of England was looking at stinky cheese. No one panicked, no one overreacted, no one brandished any sort of firearm in defense of the prince. No one had to.
The English are so dignified.
I’m back in London after a two-year absence. This is my 15th time here, each time with a group of students. I have eight with me this time, the fewest since my first year in 2000. It’s expensive, and although the cost of coming here for two weeks for the class is quite reasonable, it’s still expensive for students.
I have unfairly compared London to New York. It does neither of them justice. Of course, there are many similarities: Both are centers of industry with global corporate headquarters; both are media and entertainment capitols; both are international banking hubs; both have about 8 million people.
London, of course, is much older. Just outside the Tower tube stop is a part of the London wall. It was built by the Romans when this island was an outpost of the Roman Empire and was called Londinium. It was built 2,000 years a ago — just about the time Jesus walked the Earth. You can walk right up and touch it, and there are other spots around town where the wall is still visible.
Along Fleet Street is a pub called the Cheshire Cheese. The sign above the door says “Rebuilt in 1667.” Let that sink in for a moment. “Rebuilt” in 1667. The original pub was destroyed in the Great London Fire of 1666, the one that killed all the rats and ended the last great period of the plague. It was actually one of the first buildings rebuilt after the fire.
Simply because the workers of the day who were rapidly putting the crippled city back together again had to have a place for lunch and a pint of ale. First came the pub, then came the city, a somewhat vulgar version of “form follows function.”
Now, 390 years later — 390 years — the Cheshire Cheese still serves up fine ales and excellent food, like steak and ale pie.
The city is dotted with squares — Russell Square, Bloomsbury Square, Tavistock Square, Brunswick Square, Lincoln Inns Field — finely tended square block parks of grass, flowers, benches, fountains and statues to this historic person and that.
On warm days people flock to the squares. Families have a picnic or at least some ice cream. Kids run, shout, kick a ball and laugh with mom and dad. Young adults spread blankets or mats, kick their shoes off and sit back with friends, sharing a bottle of wine and some cheese with bread. The elders sit on the benches, often with a jacket even on warm days, and watch younger versions of themselves decades ago. Some smile, some doze, some sit with the wives of many years in contented silence and enjoy the activity around them.
The noise of the city seems to disappear in a square. And believe me, London is a noisy city. It is choked with traffic. Older double-decker buses roar when the traffic light turns green or when they pull away from a bus stop. But it is a very walkable city, and I find myself walking five or10 miles a day. If at all possible I avoid the city buses, the tube (subway) system and taxis.
The best thing to do when one walks down a London street is to look up. The storefronts at ground level are everyday storefronts, nothing special. But upward you see the great architecture of the 20th, 19th, 18th and 17th centuries.
The streets are lined with restaurants of all sorts. Indian restaurants abound. Indian food, after all, has become British food.
But London is a global city, and immigrants have come from around the world to live and work here. I met a Portuguese man and an Argentine man both serving from from their kiosks in an open-air mall.
Here in the Royal National Hotel, if you stand in the lobby for an hour, you will hear at least a dozen languages. The Royal National calls itself the largest hotel in Europe, and it may well be. There are 5,000 rooms here. And I’m not kidding about that. Pensioners on holiday to London and grade schoolers on class trips swarm the lobby and the courtyard.
The global nature means global menus. There are jokes made about British food, and indeed you can still find things like boiled beef and jellied eel. But every ethnic food has also found a home here.
Many of the restaurants are fairly small, long bowling-alleys of tables and chairs. Young immigrants are often your servers. And if you can’t find an ethnic food to your taste, pub grub is a fine alternative. Pubs are quite proud of the food they serve and especially take pride in their fish and chips. Believe me, there is no fish and chips like the fish and chips made from freshly caught, never-frozen cod.
“When you’re tired of London, you’re tired of life,” Samuel Johnson once wrote some 400 years ago. It’s even more true today. Even after 15 years of bringing students, often on their first visit to a foreign country, I still love life, and I still love London.