Thursday, 30 September 2010

Victorian London, Shakespeare

I know I'm behind on the blogging, but I'll catch up eventually. We've been busy.

Last week on Wednesday 22 September we joined Professor Mike Fosdall and his SU students for a walk around Victorian London.
Our walk began at St. Giles-in-the-Field. There has been a chapel or church at this site since the 12th century when Mathilda, the queen of King Henry I, founded a leper hospital here outside the walls of London. St. Giles is the patron saint of lepers. Mathilda herself was the granddaughter of King Duncan of Scotland, the same Duncan who was murdered by Macbeth, the same Macbeth immortalized by Shakespeare.

Inside the present church, which was built in the 1730s in the Palladian style, is a pulpit from which John Welsey preached at a different church not far away. He often preached as St. Giles as well. The church is known as the Poet's Church because of its connection to some of England's most significant poets, including Byron and Shelley whose children were baptized here, as was a daughter of John Milton's. The important architect John Soane is buried here, as are a pair of 17th century poets, Andrew Marvell and George Chapman. Also buried in the church is Cecilius Calver, the second Lord Baltimore, who is of some significance for Americans. He owned Maryland by virtue of a charter granted to him by King Charles I.

But in Victorian England the area around St. Giles was populated by desparately poor people. The poverty and misery of those living there drove many of them to lives of  chronic crime and of the foulest degradation. Local authorities tore down some of the old slums and replaced them with structures like these across the street from St. Giles. Some, like Prof. Mike, do not see them as a great improvement over the slums.

Walking down this street near St. Giles, it's hard to imagine that at one time no one respectable was safe. Such people would be immediately robbed, beaten, and worse. The buildings have changed little in the last couple hundred years except they now house exclusive shops instead of housing what we would regard as the dregs of society.

This is Neal's Yard. Nice upscale shops circle the yard and the passageways into the yard today. But in Victorian England the local thugs brought newly commissioned police officers here and beat them up. It was like an initiation, and nothing could be done about. Thieves and murderers and worse controlled a large swath of London. Anyone who entered this yard who was not of the neighborhood could not be guaranteed of getting out alive, nevermind still in possession of wallet or purse. Unspeakable crimes were common.

Times have changed. The neighborhood shops sell exclusive designer clothes and other fancy stuff.

Neal's Yard is part of an area called Seven Dials for the seven streets that converge at this column. Seven sun dials circle the top of the column. The column itself replaces a similar column that disappeared many decades ago. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, for some obscure reason, unveiled this column in 1989.

Past the Seven Dials column on the left is the Cambridge Theatre. The area is now a small gem of a shopping area, but Victorian descriptions (by Dickens among others) of the few blocks surrounding this monument describe the notorious and degraded conditions people lived under.

Seven Dials also provides the title of a recent historical mystery novel set in Victorian London.

Cheek by jowl to the slums is the Royal Opera House, where the better parts of society converged.

On the way to the River Thames we saw this statue of Michael Farraday, an early pioneer in performing experiments that revealed some of the secrets of electromagnetic energy.

On the shores of the River Thames, Cleopatra's Needle.

One of the two bronze Victorian sphinxes guarding the Needle.

Signs of shrapnel.
The sphinx is getting a little help.

Thursday evening we attended a short talk about Shakespeare at the CAPA center in preparation for the play we were going to see the following day.

The next afternoon, Friday, we attended a magnificently hilarious performance of Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe Theatre. The Globe is on the south bank of the Thames and is the best-guess reconstruction of the original Globe. The original Globe was built from materials 'borrowed' from another theatre in 1598, burned down during a performance of Shakespeare's  Henry VIII  in 1614, rebuilt, then razed by Cromwell's Puritans in 1644. The grim spoil sports did not like the theatre. The foundations of the original Globe were discovered in 1989 and soon thereafter the construction of this version of the Globe near the site of the original followed in 1997.

We watched the play among the groundlings, those whose cheap tickets allowed them to stand in the 'yard'--the portion of the theatre in front of the stage without seats or protection from the elements. The weather service forecast rain for that afternoon, but the performance must go on regardless of the weather. Fortunately only a few drops fell and we managed to stay dry and warm enough. Frankly, standing near the stage, which for this play arced out into the middle of the yard and surrounded some of us groundlings, seemed to be a much better theatrical experience than occupying one of the covered seats. It was the best theatrical experience one can imagine. It was almost like being onstage with the performers. The performances were all first rate, incredibly funny, the play itself easy to follow and understand with such excellent interpretations given us by the actors. Given that the cost for standing in the yard is only 5 pounds and we had so much fun at this play, we bought tickets for a couple more plays, both parts of Shakespeare's Henry IV. We await the performances eagerly.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

St. Albans

Tuesday afternoon, 21 September St. Albans

After a long weekend in Scotland traveling on bus and train you'd think that we'd take it easy once we were back ensconced in our small cottage in London. Oh no, not us. Do we need a recovery period? Absolutely not. Not when we can join the SU theater students for a short train jaunt up to St. Albans. We caught a ThamesLink train at St.. Pancras for the half hour ride to this cathedral city about 22 miles north and a bit west of London. A charming little middle class sort of town oozing with more history than the whole state of  Texas. Really.

This house and the one above don't represent the typical St. Alban home, but they are lovely. The is the visitor's center for the ruins of the Roman theatre we came to see.

Ruins of the theatre of the ancient Roman city of Verulamium, the main reason we're in St. Albans. This view is towards the stage. The theatre held 7000 people.

This picture is from behind the stage.

We're standing in front of the foundations of a Roman villa. Only yards away from the theatre, this must have been a well-to-do family.

Site of what archeologists believe were a row of shops.

Verulamium (on the River Ver) was the third largest Roman settlement in Britain. Queen Boudicca and her followers, not willing to bend under Roman rule, sacked the town, as she did London and Colchester.

The modern Verulamium Museum exhibits the local Roman treasures unearthed over the last few decades. The floor mosaics are especially exquisite, among best preserved, if I remember correctly, of all the mosaics in Britain.

A small statue of Mercury. There is also a lovely small statue of Venus.

Ancient tweezers.

The students crossing a bridge in Verulamium Park on their way to the cathedral.

A very old pub between the park and the cathedral.

St. Albans Cathedral. St. Albans hid a Christian, converted, and suffered execution for his troubles. The first Christian martyr in Britain, the town and cathedral were named in his honor. The story is that the cathedral stands at the site of his execution.

The cathedral's history extends back to 790 when it was founded as a Benedictine abbey and monastery. The oldest part is one of the few remaining examples of Saxon architecture. Later additions to the abbey transformed it into a cathedral, and each addition reflected a different style. This tower is in the later Norman style.

A list of all the abbots and bishops.

The nave.

The vaults above the nave.

A public house near the cathedral.

A medieval tower.
The significance of the tower is written on these plaques.

A plaque on a building just a few yards from the tower.

That was our afternoon at St. Albans. We discovered a wonderful tea room overlooking a lovely garden near the cathedral. We hope to return to sip some tea and eat some scones and explore the town some more.

After dinner at a French restaurant we hopped back on  the train and went home.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Scotland, Days 3 and 4


A short drive from Inverness on a gloomy and wet morning brought us to the battlefield of Culloden. Such a morning fit the mood of the boggy moor where the Scot Jacobite forces, mostly Highlanders, confronted the English army, including Scots loyal to George II, for the final time in 1746. The Jacobite struggle had endured on and off for over fifty years.

Led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, whose grandfather was the deposed (in 1689) King James II of England (he was also King James VII of Scotland} and whose aim was to place his father (also a James) on the throne that rightfully belonged to the Stuarts, the Highlanders were badly defeated in the last land battle in Britain. Flags today mark the where the English and Scottish lines stood across from each other on the moor. The battle took place on ground unsuited to the tactics of the Highlanders, and the enemy also greatly outnumbered the Jacobite Highlanders. The second son of King George II, the Duke of Cumberland, led the English army, which was fresher and greatly outnumbered the depleted Jacobites.

This is the monument for the Highlanders at Culloden.

Prince Charlie managed to escape and the largest manhunt in history, according to our guide Mike, commenced. Despite a gigantic reward for his capture, none of the Highland or island Scots betrayed the prince, who finally managed to escape to France and live out his life as a dissolute drunkard.

Words on the monument.

To suppress Jacobite sympathies, the English instituted what became known as the Highland Clearances. In effect the English pursued a policy we would call ethnic cleansing. Their activities destroyed Highland culture, displaced the clans, essentially forced emigration to America and Australia, forbade the use of clan names (which resulted in the adoption of color surnames such as 'White', 'Brown', 'Grey'.).

This engraved stone marks one of the burial mounds on the battlefield in which Highlanders were buried according to their clans.

For so long as one hundred men remain alive, we shall never under any conditions submit to the domination of the English. It is not for glory or riches or honours that we fight, but only for liberty, which no good man will consent to lose but with his life. THE DECLARATION OF ARBROATH, 1320

A cottage on the battlefield.

When Elizabeth I died in 1603 she designated as her heir James King of Scotland, the first of the English Stuart kings who simultaneously reigned as King of Scotland. (Mike the guide only half-kidded that the current queen is not the legitimate monarch because she isn't a Stuart.) Each country ruled their own affairs though sharing a common king. The political union of England and Scotland occurred in 1707 with the dissolution of the Scottish parliament, to the dismay of many Scots.

The magnificent Blair Castle of the Duke of Atholl of the Murray clan. During the Jacobite Rebellion the Murrays behaved quite craftily, with some fighting with the Highlanders and others taking sides with the Royalists. No matter which side won, the castle and the title would remain with the Murrays.

The 10th Duke died without an heir, so his South African 2nd cousin once removed inherited the title and is the 11th Duke. The Dukes of Atholl hold the distinction of leading the only legal private army in Europe, the Atholl Highlanders.

Chapel ruins of St. Bride's Kirk on the Castle grounds. Evidently a church has been at this site since at least the 13th century.

A shot of the interior of St. Bride's.

This is the only burial crypt in the kirk. In 1689 John Graham, Viscount Dundee, raised an army of Highlanders who near Blair Castle. As part of the Jacobite uprising they engaged and beat King William's army nearby in the Battle of Killiecrankie. Dundee was fatally wounded when a shot pierced his breastplate.

The cemetery where the Dukes of Atholl are buried.

Grabbing a bite while shooting off the cannon.

The magnificent entrance hall to Castle Blair. The walls are impressively blanketed with all kinds of weapons. This was my favorite room. I could only get one picture off before the staff stopped me. The rest of the rooms of the castle are decorated in Georgian style. The stairway, halls, and rooms contain countless historical portraits of family members and friends. Uniforms, medals, and other historical memorabilia fill several other rooms. Queen Victoria undoubtedly visited the castle during her many trips to the Highlands.

Notice the old rock bridge behind Erika. Trees from all over the world find haven in the Castle gardens.

No visit to the Highlands is complete without a visit to a whiskey distillery. This whiskey distillery distills single malt whiskey several miles down the road from Castle Blair. It isn't connected with the castle or the Atholls. One of the young distillers gave us a tour of the distillery, explaining how to make single malt whiskey: barley, yeast, pure water.

This fellow looks like he could use a couple of shots. I mean the stiff one on the left. Had he gone on the tour with us he would have gotten free samples of single malt.

This was our last stop on the Highland bus tour. Our guide told us more than I have time to tell. It's a place of incredibly stark beauty and haunting history, of ancient blood-soaked memories and grudges never to be forgotten or forgiven.

Back in Edinburgh on Sunday night.

We missed the Pope by a day in Edinburgh, and completely in London.

A sample plate of Scottish favorites. The cullen skink, a fish-based soup tasted delicious. The haggis was ok. Its purpose was to feed the Highlanders hearty and filling meals. See menu below. Oh, and the Caledonia ale tasted pretty good, too.

On our after dinner stroll we found a statue of this famous dog, Greyfriars Bobby, in front of the pub of the same name. A skye terrier, Bobby gained local fame for his 14 years of loyal vigilance over his master's grave.

This statue is just down the street from the Elephant House,  the cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote the early Harry Potter books. If our visit to Scotland showed us anything, its how the history, geography, and architecture inspired the Victorian tales of Robert Louis Stevenson, the chivalric romances of Sir Walter Scott, and the Gothic magic of J.K. Rowling.


Our last act was a visit to the spectacular Edinburgh Castle. This is the approach to the castle. Its history is too long to tell here.

Going through the gates. Both William Wallace and Robert the Bruce are honored with statues at the entrance.

William Wallace
                                                                               Robert the Bruce

The chapel of St. Margaret, the oldest part of the castle and the oldest building in Edinburgh. Wife of King Malcolm III, her son King David built the chapel around 1130.

A window in the chapel depicting St. Colomba.

The Scottish National War Memorial. Built on the castle's grounds in 1927 to remember the Scottish dead of WW I, the memorial today keeps alive the memories of those Scots who also died in WW II and later wars. The interior is spectacular. Leafing through the printed books with the names of the dead from the Scottish regiments in them was very moving. The casket holding the handwritten names of the Scottish dead of WW I is simply stunning. One cannot help but feel grief for not only those who died, but also for the families deprived of a loved spouse, child, or parent. For women also died.

Photos were not allowed in the interior of the castle, so make sure not to miss the oldest crown jewels in the United Kingdom, the Honours of Scotland. Fantastic. The photos simply do not do them justice. Although mysteriously unmentioned on the official castle web site, the Stone of Destiny is displayed along with the Honours. When ancient Scottish kings were crowned, they sat upon the Stone, so its importance to Scottish independence and royalty is much more than symbolic. English King Edward I stole the Stone in 1296 after he defeated the Scots. He placed in Westminster Abbey where it was used thereafter in the crowning ceremonies of English kings and queens. One can imagine how this rankled the Scots. But only in 1950, on Christmas Day, did some Scots brazenly retake the Stone. One of them was the father of a friend of Mike, our guide. The English recovered the Stone but didn't prosecute the 'thieves.' For how can you arrest someone, asked Mike, for taking something that belonged to them? In 1996, after 700 years, the English returned the Stone to the Scots with the agreement that it will be borrowed and moved to Westminster for the crowning of English kings and queens. For the holder of the English crown is also, since 1603, King or Queen of the Scots.

One last panoramic view of Edinburgh. Our guide left us with more stories and legends than we can remember. He is representative of a strong streak of Scottish nationalism who hopes for Scotland's complete independence from England. For such as Mike, the return of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 after an almost 300 year absence  represents an important step in the process. The Scottish Parliament determines Scotland's domestic policies, but foreign policy is still determined in London.

The train for Kings Crossing left early afternoon for the five hour journey. We're looking at the possibility of returning to Edinburgh during our stay here. There is still much of the city to explore.