Friday, May 27, 2016

Highgate Cemetery: Death and the Sublime

I made a wild run across London from Kew, where I was giving a lecture and tour, to Highgate for the special access tour to the west cemetery. Using overground trains, underground trains, underground tunnels, and overground paths, it took an hour and twenty minutes to cross The City. The tours of the West Cemetery were booked solid, and this was the first available when I booked it a month ago.  The planning, the running, the train platform hunting, the navigation of the housing complex interior paths up Swain's Lane, all were worth it for such an immersion in the Victorian Cult of Death.

Here is the "Heaven's Gate" through which one enters Highgate West.  This area is restricted because of the fragile nature of the tombs and the managed jungle of the environment.  They opened it to the public in the 1970's, but the vandalism was rampant (!?), so it became closed to the public except for special tours, on which the guides are vigilant for bad behavior of the participants.

Highgate was begun in 1839 to address the problem of not enough grave space in London as the population doubled.  The funerary sculpture is exquisite, and the cultural practices are fascinating.
There were angels, escorting the dead to heaven:

And angels sleeping with the dead:

The entire place feels excessive, but the crowning glory in the Egyptian Tombs.  Here is the opulent entrance.  Evidently it was quite brightly painted 180 years ago, but now it is a somber grey. 

Really, the jungle growing up around it adds to the mysteriousness of the location.  Inside the Egyptian Tombs are inhabitants in coffins in the hallway up to the central area.
Inside there are more crypts in a circle with an enormous Cedar of Lebannon on top of it. The doors are decorated with upside down torches that show the inhabitants no longer have need of light. There are also tombs along the curving interior section with increasing overgrowth adding to the feeling of genteel decay and riotous nature.
The light on this day was cloudy but bright, which makes the photos almost naturally sepia toned. While walking through the cemetery, the guide told us much about the people coming for picnics with the dead in Victorian times, and how people still come with a bottle of wine to sit and chat with the dearly departed.  

There are still quite well known people interred in the cemetery.  For example, the famous bare knuckle fighter, Thomas Sayers, is interred here with a memorial to his beloved dog, Lion. The anecdote is that the first carriage in the cortege contained the mortal remains of Mr. Sayers, the second carriage had Lion in it, dressed in a black crepe ruff, and in the third carriage came Mrs. Sayers.  

Other famous resting places include Mr. Karl Marx, upon whose tomb two candles burned, and Mr. Douglas Adams, upon whose grave is a pencil cup where people pay their respects by leaving a pen or pencil.

Both East and West Highgate are sublime in the technical sense of being beyond the scope of normal rational perception. the light was dispersed so the green was vivid and the grey glowed.  There are graves upon graves and tombstones and monuments tumbled together as far the eye can see into the thick woods.  There are angels, crosses, plinths, gothic arches, more angels, more celtic crosses, all jammed in together. Many are covered  with ivy, some are tumbled down. Some tombstones have skewed off their boxes and the holes in the earth gape black.  There are so many names! and so many lost names. 
Most of the graves seem to be forgotten, but some are well tended.  There are little paths that wind through the jungle-like woods. It would seem that there are also "quiet graves". These are plots that are not spoken of since the person memorialized does not want tourist visitors or pilgrims.  Douglas Adams clearly does not mind: he is right in front in the East Cemetery.  

I highly recommend a visit to the East Cemetery, which is always open to the public. It is worth the special tour of the West Cemetery, but go to the Highgate Website and reserve a place well before your visit. Plan at least three or four hours to really grok the place.  Bring a picnic. 

Friday, May 13, 2016


Due to a massive cancellation on the part of another program, we were offered the opportunity to go to Stratford Upon Avon and RSC production of Cymbeline.  Not only that, but it was a beautiful sunny day, the only one in the week.  Some in our group were burnt, but all were warmed...and then the sun went down and we all froze on the walk back to our bus.  Speaking of the coach, it was a double decker, about the size of a small apartment building.  It swayed like a ship under sail as the driver careened around the 200 roundabouts between Grantham and Stratford.  

In Stratford, I visited Ann Hathaway's cottage where she lived until she married Shakespeare and moved into town.  There is a nice dedicated footpath to the cottage from town which makes a 20 minute walk that is quite pleasant. The cottage has been restored to lovely tourist quality, but a little imagination allows the visitor to see how rough it was to live there 400 years ago.  

This beautiful garden was the sheep yard for the family farm.  In the early years of the house, there were no chimneys, so one can imagine how smokey it was.  

From the Hathaway house, I followed Anne's path to Shakespeare's family home in town where she moved after she got married.  The family house is called The Birthplace,  but Shakespeare lived there with Anne and everybody else until he bought The New Place; no, really, that is what it's called.  Aside from the huge flocks of French school students, it was quite authentic inside, all dark and cramped.  

 The New Place was evidently really ritzy, in comparison, or so the brochure says.  It is currently closed for renovation, but I stood outside the garden and listened to the workmen discuss the Brexit.  Their principle observation is, "Well, England is an island nation, innit?"

Here is the front of the New Place.  I am guessing that it is ritzier because it has more and bigger windows.  So then I continued to follow Anne's path to the family church, Trinity Church, where both Anne and Bill were buried.  It is a nice Gothic example of churchiness. The plaque that you see on the lower left indicated Bill's grave, but Anne is right next to him.

Even more interesting is the fact that this church has four, count them four, Green Man faces!  They were probably not destroyed because they are gilded.

Finally, we ended the day at the Royal Shakespeare Theater for a production of Cymbeline, a pretty silly example of Shakespeare's work, but the actors were excellent, and costumes were bizarre.  Here is the set.

The funniest part of the play was where the Britons and the Romans have a parley, and the Britons serve the Roman legionnaires chocolate digestive biscuits and tea.  I'm not sure the actors were supposed to eat their biscuits, but one guy seemed to really enjoy his biscuit.  

Then we got back on out rolling apartment complex and sailed back to Grantham. Now, I know that the highways around Cincinnati always have traffic on them, but the motorways back to Grantham were deserted. Each roundabout was like being in one of the tea cup rides at the amusement park.  

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Our Rock Star Students

The students on this trip are a great group.  Not only are they photogenic, but they are all interesting and pleasant people!  We have liberal arts majors, engineers, radiologic technologists, psychology majors, and more.  It is great to have such a varied and friendly group.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Settling In at Harlaxton

Here we are at Harlaxton. Debbie and I are living in a little flat at the back of the manor which is really quite cozy. It is really funny. It is a veritable warren of hallways to get to the very back.

Here is the stairway path to our den.

Today we talked about what the Gothic is in terms of literature, architecture, art, and historical identity. We also discussed the contrast of the merely beautiful, the picturesque, and the sublime. Then we had a field trip to view them all!  We looked a the "beautiful" English countryside. When we added a lonely twisted tree in the midst of a field, we get the picturesque.  But when we witnessed an endless field of bluebells, illuminated by the sun, stretching infinitely into the deep woods, we witnessed the sublime.
Truly, gentle reader, the photo cannot truly communicate the awe inspiring quality of these little flowers.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Packing as a meditation

Here is my "baggage".
Could I go with just a passport, a phone, and a wallet? One day...

 I have enough material to have a literature class, tour sites, paint in watercolors, do yoga, do photography, journal, dress appropriately, stay dry, keep warm, stay cool, hike on hills, fly on airplanes and take trains.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Getting Ready to Go and Remembering Being Gone

Ten years ago, I wrote a little poem about adventuring when I was a young lass in my 40s. That seems so young now...Anyway, here is my little poem from ten years ago:

We might hope someone else has the answer.
Some other place might be better.
It will all turn out.
Well, this is it.
Right now.
No one else has the answer.
No other place might be better.
It has already turned out.
It is the adventure itself that counts,
not the hoped for consequences.

The adventure right now is all about piles of paper. I won't have any room for clothing or my paint set what with all the itineraries, vouchers, passport copies, letters of introduction, inventories, syllabi, schedules, tickets, articles, and other such officialdom. But the interesting part of extended adventure of this kind is that once the marble block of hoped for consequences has been planned and delivered, which would be the aforementioned paper piles, then we get to sculpt our actual journey out of that marble block, and we won't know what it is until it's done. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Choosing clothing for inconspicuous travel

For me, it always comes down to shoes: comfortable but not clunky.  It's a careful balance. I like the Ariat Paddock boots because they support the ankle, are waterproof, and look kind of like shoes. They are rather like a light pickup truck, right? They can do the work of a truck, but they ride like a car.  Anyway, I'm currently looking for tiny ballet flats that will fit in a tiny amount of space so I don't have to wear boots *all* the time.

Here is a study abroad group. We all decided that jeans and a t-shirt was the most effective international costume.

Everything else has to dry quickly for easy laundry on the go, but I choose things that are dark colors. The huge deal my colleagues and I discussed last year, as Americans traveling abroad, was the width of pant legs.  Fashion has gone skinny again, after a brief boot-cut phase, and one of my colleagues was aghast to draw stares at her unfashionably wide legged pants. She said she ran right out and bought some straight legged pants because she felt like she just stuck out in a crowd. This may have been personal hyperbole and insecurity, but I saw her point. I have straight legged pants for this trip, not those wide trousers of yesteryear.  But I have to say, that I took a dance class with a friend in Munich, and my wide legged trousers were perfect for that traditional dance class. Hah!

I think overtly patriotic dress draws stares, and alcohol oriented t-shirts might not send the "I'm blending in" message.  I read a lot of websites about leggings, and the general message was tasteful dress is leggings with a tunic that comes to the thigh.  Rick Steves says, "Wear a scarf!", and I agree.  That is a fashion element I have seen everywhere. Baseball caps seem to be more sports oriented and not daily wear in many countries, but I'm ready to be wrong about that upon further observational research.

I think what really stands out is a group that talks really loudly, hogs the sidewalk, and is generally oblivious to others.  I think this is an international issue from the Grand Canyon to the Charles Bridge.