Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Impressions of England


Having returned from my fortnight in the land of Our Lady's Dowry, I offer the following impressions of my family's holiday in England:

* Never again will I travel overseas with toddlers.

* Weather can make or break a trip to the British Isles - luckily for us, with the exception of 1 day, our weather was sunny and fairly warm.

* We spent 1 week in the Cotswolds of Gloucestershire and 1 week along the North Norfolk Coast of East Anglia. The landscape was completely different between the 2 places, but each was beautiful in its own way.

* Depending on where you are in England, it can take you over 2 hours to drive 40 miles. When we were in the Cotswolds and in the South of England, we couldn't get anywhere fast due to congestion, confusing roads, passing through villages and towns, etc. When we were in East Anglia, however, the driving was much easier, and we were able to cover distances in half the time it took us in the other parts of England.

* We covered 2 themes during our travels: (1) early Christian history in Britain and(2) British children's literature. That means we saw lots of Cathedrals, churches, and shrines, as well as some sites related to some of our kids' favorite literary characters. The literary portion of our trip reminded us of the debt we owe to the great number of British authors of children's fiction. The Church history portion of our trip reminded us of the birthright of which we Catholics of Anglo-Saxon descent have been deprived because of the excesses of the Reformation. My wife, Sarah, said that she felt literally "robbed" of her cultural heritage whenever she looked around at the magnificent cathedrals and churches that were once part of an England fiercely loyal to the Pope and lovingly devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

* Here are some of the highlights:

St. George's Chapel, Windsor Castle.
Since our oldest son, Jamie, was born on the Feast of St. George (23 April), no trip to England would have been complete without visiting St. George's Chapel in the grounds of Windsor Castle. We actually began and ended our holiday here, since Windsor is only about 10 minutes from Heathrow. This chapel, constructed by Henry III in the early 13th century, and dedicated to St. Edward the Confessor, underwent a radical overhaul during the 14th century reign of Edward III, and was rededicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. George - England's patron saint, to whom the king had personal devotion, and St. Edward the Confessor. St. George's Chapel is most recently famous as the site of the "Service of Prayer and Dedication" following the Marriage of HRH The Prince of Wales (a.k.a. Charles) and HRH The Duchess of Cornwall (a.k.a Camilla). We purchased several items related to St. George here, including some Christmas ornaments and my son's first St. George medal.

Salisbury Cathedral.
Following our visit to Stonehenge, we made a side-trip to Salisbury - site of the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Salisbury Cathedral is unique amongst medieval English cathedrals, with the tallest cathedral spire in England, and built within one century with no substantial later additions. It is set in lovely grounds, surrounded by medieval and Tudor period buildings. It's chapter house contains the best preserved of the 4 original copies of Magna Carta. Seeing the ultra-modern Baptismal Font was quite disappointing, however.

Gloucester Cathedral and the House of the Tailor of Gloucester.
Famous for its beautiful cloisters - used to film some of the school scenes in the Harry Potter movies - and its collection of Green Men, Gloucester Cathedral is probably my favorite amongst the Cathedrals and churches we visited while in England. We arrived early in the morning, so we had the run of the place for a while. The kids loved running around the vast expanse and listening to the reverberation of their voices. Wonderful gift shop - we spent waaaaay too much money here. Just outside the Cathedral Close, through a medieval arched gateway, sits the site of the house of the Tailor of Gloucester, made famous in Beatrix Potter's tale of the same name. Unfortunately for us, having told Jamie for several months that he would be visiting this site, we learned upon arrival that the attraction had permanently shut down just 3 weeks earlier. Jamie cried for the rest of the day. Bummer.

Bath Abbey.
We visited Bath Abbey in the Wiltshire city of Bath, just after our very informative tour of the ancient ruins of the Roman Baths. I found the Abbey rather disappointing, although the vaults had some interesting historical items covering the early Christian history of Britain. My wife and mother got to visit the Jane Austen Centre (during Bath's annual Jane Austen Festival, no less) while my step-father and I sat in a park and watched the boys play.

Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick Castle.
Although my parents got to visit Stratford-upon-Avon, with all its delicious "Shakespeare was a closet Catholic" potential, because of the kids, Sarah and I had to opt for the more interesting (at least to the kids) and quite impressive Warwick Castle - just 7 miles away from Stratford. The castle is impressive in that it is England's best-preserved Medieval castle. However, we were somewhat less impressed when we learned that the inhabitants of the castle had sided with Cromwell during the English Civil War. This was the 1 rainy day we experienced during our stay and, needless to say, everyone seems to have caught a cold that day.

The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.
Sarah stayed with the kids while I ventured out as a pilgrim (wearing my Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club T-shirt) to the villages of Little Walsingham and Houghton-St-Giles to participate in the Solemnity of Our Lady of Walsingham on Saturday, 24 September. The entire day proved to be a very moving and spiritual experience, as Our Lady of Walsingham is the patroness of our family. Upon arriving in Little Walsingham, I set out on foot for the village of Houghton-St-Giles and the Roman Catholic Shrine of Our Lady housed in what is known as the Slipper Chapel. For part of my walk, I followed a procession of pilgrims known as the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom who had walked all the way from London! I eventually passed these extremely tired folks, and processed on my own to the Shrine, reciting the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary. When I arrived at the Shrine, I first went to the Holy Ghost Chapel to light several candles. I then proceeded to the Slipper Chapel to pray before the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. Before Mass, which was at Noon, I spent some time in the Shrine's gift shop. I purchased several items, and noticed that the shop was well stocked with some of Amy Welborn's books, including Praying the Rosary and Here. Now. I guess Amy is big with Catholics in the U.K. as well. We were called to Mass by bells. Hundreds of pilgrims moved toward the Chapel of Reconciliation, a barnlike structure that nevertheless manages to retain the solemnity of an Anglo-Saxon shrine. On days like the Feast Day when there are so many pilgrimages in attendance, the doors behind the altar open up to form an open-air sanctuary. The Mass was very nice, and the music provided by a small choir was terrific. There is something eloquent in how the English speak their native tongue that gives a certain aura of formality to the English Novus Ordo that seems lacking in the English-language Masses of the United States. The English do the Creed and some of the other prayers slightly differently than we do (their versions are more poetic). They also end their Masses with the Angelus, which I think is wonderful.

After Mass, I returned to the Slipper Chapel for one more chance to pray before the image of Our Lady, and then returned to the Shrine shop to buy a few more pilgrim trinkets and a plastic bottle to fill with Holy Water from the Shrine. I then walked back to the village of Walsingham to visit some of the many religious goods shops there. Next, I visited the site of the original Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, which was housed in the grounds of an Augustinian priory (now referred to as the Abbey). The site is now in private hands, and is open to the public for a small fee. Finally, I visited the very lovely Anglican shrine.

A Day Out With Thomas - Bure Valley Railway.
One of the highlights of our trip for the kids was the opportunity to meet Thomas the Tank Engine and his friends at the Bure Valley Steam Railway.

Norwich Cathedral.
Norwich Cathedral was probably my second favorite Cathedral that we visited. It has the second highest cathedral spire in England, after Salisbury Cathedral. Wonderfully painted roof bosses, including a large number of Green Men, can be found in the nave and throughout the cathedral. In addition, there are some wonderful 12th and 13th Century wall and ceiling paintings that can still be faintly seen. There is also a beautiful 15th Century Seven Sacraments Font, which was damaged by iconoclasts during the English Civil War. The cloisters were also quite lovely. Another excellent gift shop - and once again, we spent too much money here. Once we ventured outside the Cathedral, we discovered England's best-preserved Medieval city. Norwich literally has a church on every street corner - with over 30 medieval churches and the 19th Century Gothic revival St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Cathedral, which was a gift to the Diocese of Norwich by Henry Fitzalan Howard, the 15th Duke of Norfolk. During our trip, we met one man from Norwich who joked that the city had 52 churches - one for every week of the year, and 365 pubs - one for every day of the year. One of our favorite Norwich churches, tucked away in an out-of-the-way corner of the city, was St. Julian's Church - on the site of the former cell of the famous anchoress and mystic Julian of Norwich. My 3 year old, Jamie, took great pleasure in lighting a candle in this tiny but marvelous church.

Castle Acre Priory.
The remains of a Cluniac Priory are located in the picturesque village of Castle Acre. These priory remains are the best preserved in all of England. An excellent hand-held audio tour. The kids loved climbing on the rocky foundations, as well as seeing and hearing the silence-piercing fighter jets flying overhead from one of the many military airbases located in East Anglia.

King's College Chapel, Cambridge.
It took over 100 years and 6 kings to build King's College Chapel. Begun by Henry VI in 1446, it was finally completed by Henry VIII in 1547. The chapel has a marvelous vault ceiling, which is unsupported by any columns, having only the external walls as means of support. King's College Chapel is probably most famous for the King's College Choir, which perfoms Choral Evensong daily during term at Cambridge and performs the world-renowned Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve. I bought a nice 12 Days of Christmas Advent Calendar in the chapel's shop.

Ely Cathedral.
On Michaelmas, we visited Ely Cathedral. It was in many ways the most interesting of the cathedrals we visited. Known as the "Ship of the Fens" and site of the Shrine of St. Etheldreda (the Saxon queen who founded a double monastery at this location), Ely Cathedral has many unique features. At one time, Ely was an island - it is surrounded by the fen lands of Cambridgeshire, which were once underwater before the East Anglians built a series of dikes to reclaim the land from the sea. One of the first things you notice from the outside of the cathedral is the unusual octagon-shaped tower added in the 14th Century. The West Tower is also quite unusual. You can also see the former monastic buildings around the cathedral, which make up the largest collection of medieval buildings still in domestic use. Once inside Ely Cathedral, the spectacular nave contains some wonderful Victorian-era ceiling murals depicting the story of Salvation from Creation to Ascension. The Presbytery once contained the Shrine of St. Etheldreda, which was a major site of medieval pilgrimage in East Anglia. The Lady Chapel, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, is the largest of its kind attached to a British cathedral. It is here that you witness the extent of the iconoclasm of the Reformers. The chapel once boasted richly carved and painted walls and the finest medieval stained glass windows, with statues adorning every niche, all of which were destroyed or damaged at the Reformation in 1539. The Reformers even went so far as to smash the heads and faces off the tiny statues in the quite detailed medieval wall carvings - only the bodies now remain. Unfortunately, modern devotees to the Virgin at Ely Cathedral have not done the chapel any favors by placing above the altar one of the most hideously ugly statues meant to represent Our Blessed Lady that I have ever seen (I asked Sarah why they had placed a statue of Sleeping Beauty in the Lady Chapel, and why she seemed so angry). Ely Cathedral also has a wonderful gift shop. Lest I forget, Ely has one added distinction, albeit a dubious one in my view: it was the birthplace and home of Oliver Cromwell.

After leaving Ely Cathedral, we spent a wonderful afternoon and evening visiting with some of Sarah's family who live in Cambridgeshire (Sarah's grandmother is a native of England, having moved to the States after meeting, falling in love with, and marrying Sarah's grandfather - an American fighter pilot - during World War II).

The Museum of River and Rowing (featuring The Wind in the Willows exhibit), Henley-on-Thames.
We spent the last night of our trip in Windsor, so that we could catch our flight of Heathrow the next day without having to rush around. Nearby Windsor is the picturesque town of Henley-on-Thames, site of the Royal Regatta and the Museum of River and Rowing. This, along with meeting Thomas and friends, was the highlight of the trip for my children. Our kids, especially Jamie, are huge fans (along with their dad) of Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, and we had been promising them for months that they would get to see Moley, Ratty, Badger and Mr. Toad when we went to England. The Museum of River and Rowing has a permanent exhibition containing models of scenes from The Wind in the Willows based on the famous illustrations by artist E.H. Shepard (also known for his illustrations for A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh stories). This exhibit is very well done. I would highly recommend it to anyone taking their children with them to England. My kids went through the exhibit at least 5 or 6 times.

Well, that's a rundown of some of the highlights. We did much more during the 2 weeks we were in England than I have time or space to mention here. But we also left undone many things we had hoped to do. Hopefully, some day in the future we can return to that wonderful country, Our Lady's Dowry, and see some more of its wonderful sites.

I almost forgot. I mentioned in passing above in my description of my pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham that I had worn my Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club T-Shirt. The shirt (as well as the Holy Father that it praises) got rave reviews from pilgrims young and old, clerical and lay that day at Walsingham.

One youngish-to-middle-aged priest [UPDATE: who turns out to be Fr. Finigan] who had walked all the way from London with the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom came up to me and said "I'm a member [of the fan club], too ... only my bumper sticker says 'The Cafeteria Is Closed'." An older priest took great delight in reading the contents of the shirt to a near-blind Sister who had accompanied him on pilgrimage. In noting that he didn't know what "Putting the Smackdown on Heresy" means, he said "I suppose that means putting the kibosh on heresy, which is a good thing."

Indeed it is.

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At 11/03/2005 8:23 PM, Blogger Etheldreda said...

It's interesting to read your response to the tearing down of Catholic shrines in England. It is something that is upsetting me (here in New Zealand) as I try to find out what happened to St Etheldreda's body at the dissolution.

Having been brought up a Protestant, I was fascinated by all the stories of saints that I discovered when studying medieval history. It really saddened me that I had been deprived of all these wonderful women role-models, because I was brought up on the wrong side of the fence. I'm trying to rectify this problem, now.


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