Our trip started a little too early on a Thursday. We had been in London for three weeks, and it was time for an adventure northwest. It was also my 20th birthday and, after a two-hour bus ride, I was thrilled to be satisfying my 10th-grade, Shakespeare-obsessed self with a visit to the Bard's birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon. The town was our first stop of the weekend, and a wonderful conclusion to the course we had just finished, Professor David Simon's Transnational Shakespeare.
After a little wandering and more than a little posing with statues of Prince Hal, Falstaff, Lady Macbeth, and Hamlet, our tour began. It took us through the whole town, including the house where Shakespeare may or may not have been born (but in which he definitely founded a pub called the Swan and Maidenhead), the streets that supposedly share the same layout as the ones Shakespeare would have walked, and the Church of the Holy Trinity, where he is buried. That night, our hostel hosted a pub quiz and we joined in, failing miserably at the names of TV detectives but redeeming ourselves in a "Living on a Prayer" sing-along. I should mention that four of us didn't make it to the quiz thanks to scoring last-minute, standing-room-only tickets to see David Tennant in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Richard II.
The next day we road-tripped to the Lake District, our destination for the remainder of the weekend and the introduction to our next course, Professor Tim Campbell's Arts Institutions in Romantic London. Our visit to Kenilworth Castle was a wonderful intermission to the bus ride. With a garden once meticulously cared for and constructed according to the whims of Queen Elizabeth I, the castle now lies in beautiful red ruins in front of a breathtaking view, and I took the opportunity to live out one of my many walks-in-foggy-English-countryside fantasies. Its graffiti also made an impression: H. Squires left his mark on the castle's walls in 1760, prompting several exclamations of "It's older than America!" We had lunch in the castle's stables and piled back into our bus, ready to make trails to Ambleside. We arrived in the evening and settled in, preparing for the next morning's five-hour hike.
The stunning walk took us around some of the most photogenic scenery I've ever seen. We were led around Grasmere and Rydal Water—two of the many lakes that make up the district—and into a shallow cave, as well as along the old path, aptly named the Coffin Trail, once taken by local villagers en route to deposit their dead in town. The environment makes it easy to see why the area served as such integral inspiration to the Romantic movement, and the following week's reading assignments would have us refer back to our experience there consistently. And while it really is regularly raining in England, the weather broke for the exact duration of our hike, and sunlight settled over the landscape laid out before us. We took it all in and headed back to our hostel, mentally preparing for the nine-hour haul home the next day.
We made one final stop before leaving the Lake District: William Wordsworth's former residence, Dove Cottage. I think we were slightly apprehensive about yet another tour, but this proved incredibly rewarding. The home is preserved as faithfully to the Wordsworths' time as possible, and everyone working on the premises has an impressive knowledge not only of the Wordsworths' family life, but of the area, the time period, and Romanticism in general. Our tour was followed by a lecture on the Lake District's Romantics and a glimpse of their collection, including a first edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Wordsworth's personal copy of Paradise Lost. And with that, we were ready to head home to London.
That very, very long bus ride back left plenty of time for reflecting on the trip. For some, it meant quizzing Professors Simon and Campbell with questions that hadn't been answered on our tours. For others, it meant continuing our newly founded traditions of group singing and word games (cue a cacophony of "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" songs and someone shouting "OLIGARCHY!").
I spent my time thinking about how we invent our histories and what literary legacies really mean, particularly outside of an academic context. After all, the tour of Stratford and, to a lesser extent, the tour of Dove Cottage relied quite heavily on conjecture about the lives of their inhabitants to construct compelling narratives about the spaces we were visiting. It's now almost three weeks later, and I'm still mulling over these questions—certainly the marker of a trip well taken.
These travels served as the perfect transition between our two courses. It helps to emphasize what exactly makes this program so exciting: waking up every morning and being just a few steps, a tube stop, or a train ride from what has been preserved of the literary history we've been studying. Ultimately, if I'm going to learn about Shakespeare and the Romantics, this is the way to do it—their books in my hands, their houses in my neighborhood, and their streets under my feet.
Ula Kulpa is a third-year History major participating in the British Literature, History, and Culture study abroad program in London. For more content on study abroad, check out "What they brought back from abroad: Part Six."
Posted on: Monday, November 18, 2013 - 5:30pm