Saturday, June 25, 2016

June 11 & 12

The USM British Studies program offered two optional day trips which allowed us to take coaches to see Dover Castle and Canterbury on Saturday and Stonehenge and Winchester on Sunday. It was great to get out of the busy city for a little while (even though we missed the Trooping of the Colour for the Queen’s birthday) and enjoy the rolling hills of England.

A window sill inside the main tower
Dover Castle

The castle is an imposing grey building perched at the top of a green hill. Its outer walls protect the central tower and hide many underground tunnels. When we entered the castle, a few of us decided to venture off and explore since the castle wasn’t busy yet. We found a great area to take some pictures, but at the same time we inadvertently led another group of tourists up to the same area, which meant that by trying to avoid crowds we had now put ourselves in the middle of one. We instead chose to explore the medieval tunnels under the castle. We had a ton of fun climbing stairs, walking through passages, and finding (unwelcome) spiders! After the tunnels we were able to spend some time in the gift shop before heading towards the main exhibit and tower. On our way we met a wonderful woman that hosts ghost tours at the castle, and had an entertaining chat with her. The exhibit explained how and when the castle was built and its importance to the area, while the tower showed how the residents would have lived at the time. We had a great time admiring the architecture and fancy furniture! We were also able to take a brief look at the World War II tunnels that were used as barracks for soldiers. After walking up and down hills, tunnels, and castle stairs we were exhausted, but had had a great time at Dover Castle!
The outside view of Canterbury Cathedral


We also visited the town of Canterbury on Saturday. I had joked the previous day that I was going to buy a copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and read it to everyone in middle English as we drove to the famous site of pilgrimage. I have a feeling that it wouldn’t have been well received by the entire coach. When we arrived we found a pub called The Shakespeare where we ate lunch. We were a little disappointed to find out that the Canterbury Cathedral of historical fame was actually not open, so we had to find other sites to see after snapping a few pictures of the outside. We ended up finding the wonderful Hospital of St. Thomas the Martyr Eastbridge, which is not a modern hospital, but acted as a place of safe haven and worship to those on pilgrimage to Canterbury after the murder of St. Thomas Becket in 1170. We were able to hear the fascinating history of the museum from one of the employees and learned that the facility still houses and aides those in need. We were able to see remnants of beautiful old frescos, a small chapel, and an amazing stained glass window. It was a wonderful way to learn more about the community. Finally, we took a quick walk through a public library, because that’s what happens when a bunch of librarians are let loose on a town!


On Sunday we had another early morning coach ride. This time it took us to Stonehenge, the site of the famous Neolithic monument! Personally, Stonehenge is one of my favorite places that I have ever been. I think I could literally spend hours there soaking up what I feel is a deep sense of history and power. Now, this feeling could all be credited to one too many Outlander novels, but to me the idea that people spent such a large amount of time and effort on Stonehenge proves that it is a place of immense importance. The site has remained remote enough that you can still feel surrounded by nature as you walk around the monument. This closeness with nature, ancientness of the stone, and the mystery shrouding the methods and reasons for its creation make Stonehenge a truly magical location. I was especially excited that we had a short period of sunshine while making our way around the path. We actually almost left, but after deciding to spend a few more minutes enjoying the beauty of the monument we were rewarded with about three minutes of sunlight!

The Winchester Round Table

After Stonehenge we traveled to Winchester. We visited the Great Hall at Winchester Castle to see King Arthur’s Round Table. Although the table is painted to show King Arthur and his knights, the table is believed to have been built for King Edward I of England in the 13th century and was later painted for King Henry VIII. The large table is actually hung on the wall to allow visitor to view it without exposing it to possible damage. The paintings show Arthur’s knights placed around the table with Henry VIII in Arthur’s place above a Tudor rose. I have always loved Arthurian stories, so seeing the admiration and respect that kings of England had for the legends was amazing. Like Stonehenge, the mystery and stories surrounding the table and King Arthur intrigue me. Along with the stained glass coat of arms, the table makes the Great Hall a magnificent room. I also loved the small garden outside the Great Hall that was built for Queen Eleanor. It was a beautiful small space that would have been perfect for a queen to use as a private garden escape. Before leaving Winchester we were able to stop by the wonderful cathedral where Jane Austen is buried. We saw the plain stone marking her grave in the floor of the cathedral, as well as the more elaborate dedications that were added by her nephew and the public celebrating her writing. We had a great weekend seeing so many important sites of England!

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