It looked, felt, and acted like a real adventure, even though I had taken the precaution of telling the hotel manager where I was going and who I was going with. Michel’s vehicle was newish, and quite comfortable. His driving through the city made me crazy, and while I frequently – but quietly – gripped the armrests, we never hit anyone.
The region around Tana is called the highlands. It’s in the neighborhood of 1200 feet above sea level, and supports a lot of farming. Malagasy farmers grow a lot of rice, and the Malagasy eat a lot of rice. Meals are rice with vegetables and possibly meat, and a sauce made up of garlic, ginger, tomato, vanilla, coconut milk, curry powder, and green peppercorns, not all them all at the same time. But very good.
The main roads in Madagascar – the national roads – are paved. After that, pavement is intermittent or non-existent. Sometimes there is no sign of gravel. It’s not much of a problem except when it rains, and then a road can become impassable.
The Reserve Peyrieras, founded by French entomologist Andre Peyrieras, is about an hour’s drive east of Tana on the N2 national road, and I recommend visiting it. The animals and reptiles are well-kept, and, as I learned later, trying to find a chameleon in the wild is extremely difficult. Natural camouflage is worn by survivors because it works.
The crocodile was fine, but the main attraction is the collection of chameleons. They are fascinating creatures. Chameleons as a species are not exclusive to Madagascar – same with the geckos – but some types are only found on Madagascar.
Many of the reptiles, chameleons and geckos in particular, are kept in several large greenhouse-type buildings, and they are free to roam within them. Tourists must be accompanied by a guide.
Chameleons are generally classified as “threatened” for the usual reasons – destruction of habitat and wild animal trafficking.
The longest-lived chameleons last about 10 – 12 years in the wild, and a couple years longer in a preserve. They are “ambush predators,” hiding in wait for an insect to come within range of their sticky tongues, which shoot out and nab their prey.
Male chameleons come in a range of sizes, from 5 inches to 24 inches, depending on the particular species, but most of them are about 14 – 18 inches. Males are slightly bigger than females, who, within the same kind of range, average just under 12 inches. Males and females mate, then the female lays eggs in a dug earth nest, covers them, and then the parents are done. Hatchlings dig out of the nest and fend for themselves.
All chameleons have “zygodactylous” feet, meaning they have two toes on their front feet and two toes on their back feet. To me, the toes don’t look like toes, rather their feet look as if they are split in half to wrap around the branches where they hide. Camouflage helps them find food and is their defense against their predators, which are birds and snakes.
When a chameleon finds itself on the ground, they walk with a rocking motion – step forward, lean back, step forward, lean back – which must be when they are most likely to become someone’s lunch, because it’s slow going. I never saw a chameleon walking fast, let alone running. They seem to be the sloths of the reptile world.
Chameleons use their ability to change color mainly to communicate, rather than to blend into their surroundings. They don’t change color because they’re angry, but to show a desire to mate or to fight a rival male, or as a sign of submission to one who may see them as a threat.
Bright displays can signal strength – weaker males have duller colors. Speed and brightness of color change also communicate strength or weakness. When chameleons are feeling submissive, like trying to show that they are not a threat, they’ll turn a darker color.
Like most reptiles, chameleons regularly shed their skin – more frequently when they are young and growing, less frequently as adults. Eating the skin that is peeling speeds the process and provides some nutrition.
When chameleons detect an insect, they can turn their eyes and see their prey binocularly. They “lock” in their view and subsequently follow the insect by moving their entire head and not their eyes. When they sense a predator nearby, they hold their heads still and move only their eyes to avoid detection.
The Reserve Peyrieras has more than chameleons. There are tomato frogs (they’re red, of course,) fruit bats, who live all over Madagascar, and some snakes – there are no dangerously poisonous snakes in Madagascar. The one kind of snake that has venom has fangs, but the fangs are toward the rear of their jaw, so biting a human is problematic. The tiny geckos were fun to look at.
When we left the reserve, it was almost lunchtime and we had some more distance to cover. If you are so inclined, you can follow the N2 National Road from Antananarivo going east, and find the Reserve Peyrieras along the way. When we left the reserve, we continued east to the Sahatandra River Hotel. You can find all of these on Google Maps.
During this trip, I observed that the guides kept themselves separate from their clients at meals and, of course, at night. The places we stayed had separate dining rooms for guides, or at the least, clearly separate tables. I was a little concerned by this because the tourists are generally white and the guides are generally brown, but no one else was bothered by it, and I think here the real reason is that it serves as a “break time” boundary for the guides.
I never saw where Michel stayed, but I suspect the hotels and resorts had dormitory-like quarters for guides. There is a mutual support system for tour guides, restaurants, lodging, and the local park guides. Tour guides bring business so they get free room and board, and the local guides give a portion of whatever tips they get from the tourist to the tour guide.
Everywhere we went, the local people knew Michel. For his part, he arranged enjoyable lodging for me, with good meals, and looked for experienced local guides with good English. Whatever system they have worked out, worked for me.
We arrived at the hotel about an hour after lunch, and we had a free afternoon, which I used to unpack and relax after the bumpy ride. In the evening, Michel took me to Andasibe National Park, where I had an evening walk with a local guide for viewing wildlife. My night-time photography skills are limited, so I have only a few photos.
There are twenty species of Mouse lemur – they are the smallest primates in the world. Generally, they sleep during the day and forage for insects, fruit, leaves, and flowers at night. Their head and body measure about three inches, and their tails may be up to seven inches. Their entire self weighs about 1.6 ounces/45 grams.
These two kinds of lemurs were mostly what we saw, with an occasional chameleon. As in other places, food resources are foraged by different animals at night than in the day. Michel promised I would see more tomorrow.
Antananarivo, called “Tana” by nearly everyone, is the capital of Madagascar, and it is a big city. It houses a population of about 1.275 million people on its hills. Streets twist and turn across the hills and the houses on the streets are packed tightly. The houses frequently have corrugated metal roofs and need painting. Window glass is optional for older houses, but, window glass or not, almost all have wooden-slatted shutters for privacy and to protect against the winter rains.
The Vazimba, ancestors to the Malagasy, occupied the Tana area prior to the 1600s, but not much is known about them. The island was covered by tribal groups, each with their own king or queen. In 1610, King Andrianjaka of the Marina tribe conquered the Tana area. He gave the name Antananarivo, “place of a thousand warriors,” to the area when he stationed a substantial number of troops there. In the late 1700s, King Andranampoinimerina, a descendant of Andrianiaka, moved the Marina capital to Tana. This was his base as he unified more of the island, and Tana remained the capital.
Tana was still the capital in 1896, when France forcibly annexed Madagascar as a French colony, exerting total control. Madagascar remained a French colony until 1960, when the Malagasy regained their independence. Independence didn’t come easily – Madagascar has had several republics, each a new iteration of self-government, and a military take-over. However, in 2013 and 2019, leaders have been elected according to law.
It’s an extremely poor country. Madagascar as a whole has about 29 million people. Of that number, about 80% live on the equivalent of U.S. $2.50 per day, or roughly $75 per month, according to the World Bank, or 71%, according to the CIA Fact Sheet. Either way, serious poverty dominates and malnutrition is an ongoing problem.
The Malagasy have a traditional religion that believes in one god, Zanahary, who created the universe. Their religion believed in ancestor worship, a relationship between the dead and the living.
Michel, who was my guide outside of Tana, said that Malagasy people still observe some of the customs and rituals of the traditional religion. In the old days, the remains of the ancestors were buried repeatedly – it was known as famadihana, or turning of the bones, and was done periodically.
The climate in Madagascar is hot, so bodies decompose pretty quickly. In the 21st century, people who die are still buried in cemeteries, and a while later, the living family comes back together, unearths the bones, clean them, and re-bury them.
The “while later” is not a definite length of time, but rather, one or more descendants simply “know” when the right time arrives, and they all gather. They may or may not repeat the process. It is a ritual that demonstrates respect for the ancestors.
Needless to say, when Christian missionaries arrived in Madagascar in the early 1800s, they disapproved.
It was Radama I who opened the country to English missionaries during his reign, 1810 – 1828. The London Missionary Society (LMS) spread Christianity through out the island, and, in the process, transcribed the Malagasy language into a written language. Industry was brought to the island. Radama I died in 1828, and was succeeded by his widow, Queen Ranavalona I.
Queen Ranavalona reigned for thirty-three years, during which she persecuted Christians, banished foreigners, executed political rivals, and attempted to re-establish the traditional religion, including the practice of killing babies born on unlucky days. Anyone caught holding a Bible would be executed by strangling.
The Queen was reacting not only to concerns about eroding the traditional religion, but also to Christianity, which preached equality before God. Madagascar royalty and other elites depended on slavery for their status and wealth, so the new preaching was clearly a problem.
In 1861, the Queen died. (Surely everyone across the island must have exhaled audibly.) She was succeeded by Radama II (1861 – 1863), who was assassinated, and then Rasoherina (1863 – 1868). It was a whiplash moment as Radama granted religious freedom, which may have prompted his assassination. Rasoherina went further by becoming Christian himself, and made Christianity the state religion.
Rasoherina signed treaties with the British and the French, but it was an uneasy coexistence. In 1890, in typically colonial fashion, Britain recognized a French “protectorate” over Madagascar in exchange for dominance in Zanzibar. By 1896, France had invaded Madagascar and annexed it as a colony.
The only good thing that could be said about the French occupation of Madagascar is that they abolished slavery, which freed about 500,000 people, according to local sources. But it was problematic. Slave labor was replaced with “corvee,” a French concept that was not very different from slavery: it was forced, unpaid labor on the French plantations, seemingly limited only by length of time, although that is not specifically stated. The plantations generated large revenues for the colonial administration.
In 1897, a Malagasy rebellion was crushed by the French. The native monarchy was dissolved and the queen was exiled to Reunion (a small island in the Indian Ocean, and then to Algeria, where she died in 1917.
Malagasy were conscripted to fight for France in WWI, and, in an interesting development, the Malagasy began protesting French rule in 1918, but were unable to make much headway. Malagasy were forced to fight in WWII also. France gave Madagascar the right to be represented in the French National Assembly in 1944.
Independence was finally granted to Madagascar in 1960, after sixty-four years of colonial rule and intermittent rebellions by the Malagasy, some more violent than others. Madagascar has had several iterations of self-government, but is currently under a constitutional format.
After the arrival of Europeans, a European-style palace was built for Ranavalona I, designed by a Scottish missionary, James Cameron. A stone structure was built for Ranavalona II in 1867, but the wooden interior remained, which burned in 1995. When I was there, the building was mostly a shell, with a small display, but my current reading sounds as if more has been restored since my visit.
I have to mention Ambohimanga, which means “blue hill,” although I did not visit the site, which is a short drive north of Tana. It is one of Madagascar’s three UNESCO World Heritage sites, and is well worth visiting. I regret that I missed it. It is a large, fortified site known as “Manjakamiadana,” or “a fine place to rule,” that contains the tombs of kings and queens, as well as a couple of palaces and the ruins of others. King Andrianampoinimerina moved the capital from Ambohimanga to Tana in the late 1700s, so much pre-European history is centered in Ambohimanga.
Learning more about Malagasy history and seeing Antananarivo, was interesting, but I was looking forward to seeing more of Madagascar and their wildlife. I asked the hotel staff where I could find a guide or tour around Madagascar, and that was how I found Michel, who came highly recommended. We arranged to meet at the Buffet du Jardin at the Place de l’Independence. Michel drew up a program to show off the different areas of Madagascar. I had imagined Madagascar as entirely tropical – and it mostly is – but there are distinctive areas. And two days later, we were on our way.
I was on my way north, having just left the home of my friends in the barrier islands of South Carolina after a lovely visit. The scenery along the “Low Country” shoreline is very beautiful. The fluffy clouds change shapes as they hang in the summer sky, and are reflected in the flat, shallow water below.
People in South Carolina refer to the shore area as the “Low Country.” On one map I checked, an older one, the inland area was labeled the “Backcountry.” When I was in Charleston, I heard a man say he lived “upstate.” At first I thought he must be from New York state, where there are two parts of the state, New York City and Upstate. No, he said, he lived in upstate South Carolina. Since then, I have also heard “Upcountry,” a logical comparison to “Low Country.” “Backcountry” clearly has fallen out of favor.
Ever since I was a kid, watching Disney’s “Swamp Fox” on TV, I have been interested in Charleston, and so the thought of leaving South Carolina without visiting the city for even just a while, wouldn’t let go of me. It was only a couple of hours at most from where I was – and I didn’t know when I would be this close again. After about twenty minutes of half-hearted driving, I gave in, re-calculated my route, made a hotel reservation, and pointed the car in the direction of Charleston.
It was still before noon when I arrived in Charleston. I had reserved a room at the Francis Marion Hotel, which is right downtown across from Marion Square. It’s my favorite kind of hotel, one of those old-style hotels built when train travel was king and room service was plentiful.
The lobby is still grand by any definition. In the afternoon, a man played music that was easy to listen to on the baby grand piano in the lobby, where the ceiling is at least two stories high. It was designed for friends to meet and greet and maybe have a cocktail before going to dinner. I loved it.
On the ground floor, below the lobby floor, there was the Swamp Fox restaurant and a Starbucks, a prominent nod to changed times. These flanked a wide entranceway, between the restaurant and the coffee shop, that was once where taxis dropped passengers from the railway station (now the Visitors’ Center about two blocks away.) These days, people can pull up to the curb on King Street, and let the valet staff unload luggage and park the cars.
The concierge desk was unoccupied, but a variety of pamphlets and flyers were laid out on the table, allowing visitors to choose anything that attracted their interest. With so much of the day in front of me, I sat down with a map and a small guide-pamphlet and coffee to check out the sights to be seen.
The city was founded in 1670 on a peninsula formed by two of three rivers that begin in the Backcountry (or Upstate) – the Ashley and the Cooper. The Wando River joins in at the end as the three rivers converge to form the Charleston harbor.
The city was called Charles Town in honor of King Charles II, who granted the charter establishing the settlement. The name gradually morphed into Charlestown, but the city was never incorporated until 1783 (after the Revolution) and it was then officially named “Charleston.”
Colonial Charles Town’s government was handled directly by a colonial legislature and a governor sent by Parliament. Election districts were organized by Anglican parishes, and some social services were managed by the Anglican wardens and vestries of both St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s. At that time, St. Philip’s was the name of the church at “Four Corners.”
It was June 30th in South Carolina when I arrived, and between the temperature and the humidity, the afternoon was growing warmer by the minute. Clouds were gathering overhead. When the valet staff offered me an umbrella on my way out, I accepted.
Charleston turns out to be a relaxed kind of place to visit. Unlike some cities, Charleston is not filled with dramatic kinds of “must-see” sights with frazzled tourists waiting in long lines, at least, not in late June. Instead, history-minded citizens have preserved the areas that have been lived in by real people from the founding of the colony, through the Revolution, the War of 1812, and Civil War, and these buildings are still living and breathing today.
To find history alive in Charleston, I needed only to cross King Street and enter Marion Square, named for General Francis Marion, fondly remembered here as the Swamp Fox. Some of us (okay, maybe just me) remember the “Swamp Fox” show on TV. We watched Francis Marion harass the British during the Revolution, only to disappear into the swamps along the Low country region after their guerilla-style attacks.
Marion Square was an important location in colonial and early American Charleston. King Street was originally the highway into “Charles Town,” and was called the Broad Path. At the time of the American Revolution, the town gates stood across the Broad Path, almost in front of the Francis Marion Hotel. The gates later became part of the “Horn-Work,” a line of defense that stretched from the Ashley River across the peninsula to the Cooper River. The threat came not from Native Americans, but from the Spanish in Florida and the pirates who roamed the Caribbean. Charles Town’s culture came as much from Barbados as from England or France.
At the north side of the square, between Tobacco and Hutson Streets, was a line of warehouses for the storage and inspection of tobacco, prior to being exported. These buildings were partly replaced by an arsenal after an attempted slave uprising in 1822. The arsenal acquired the name “Citadel,” and the square became known as the “Citadel Green.” By 1842, the buildings were occupied by the South Carolina Military Academy, then converted to county offices in 1937. The sign where I read this information was erected in 1941, so I’m not sure what happened in the last eighty-one years, but according to the present-day street map, the arsenal building is still there and so is Tobacco Street, except it’s closed to vehicle traffic. There are hotels where the warehouses once were.
The Visitors’ Center is well worth a visit. It’s located about a block and a half north of Tobacco Street and Marion Square. It has retained the appearance of the train station downtown, a long – very long – brick building with a small parking lot on one side and a cavernous bus shelter on the other side. The city buses go through a nearby connection on Meeting Street, and there are some private tour buses that depart from the Visitors’ Center. There are friendly staff to help visitors find places and arrange tours, plus a plethora of brochures and directories for various activities and resources in Charleston.
In addition to tourist resources, there are also about a dozen displays that show the general history of the city, beginning with the Native Americans, the Spanish, the English and French, then the Gullah, and continues through the early 20th century. Not a deep dive, but enough to help visitors become acquainted with Charleston.
Near the Visitors’ Center is the Joseph Manigault House, built 1803. The Manigault family was descended from French Huguenots who escaped from religious persecution in the late 1600s by coming to South Carolina. The house showcases the lifestyle of a wealthy rice planter and merchant family, along with the enslaved African Americans who lived there.
The next day, I began my sightseeing by walking in the opposite direction, heading south along King Street. There were a lot of shops on either side of the street, some with well-known names and some that appeared to be local – mostly clothing, gifts, and food, but occasionally a bank or professional service.
Only a couple of blocks along the way however, I was drawn into a side street, Hasell Street, by a couple of more historic-looking buildings that turned out to be St. Mary’s Catholic Church and Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim Synagogue. St. Mary’s was all locked up, but across the street there was activity. As I read the visitors’ information at the courtyard gate of the synagogue, I realized there was a tour about to start, so I hurried in. Bobbi Cohn, our tour guide, and several others who arrived, very kindly waited for me to finish booking the tour online.
“Charles Town” was established in 1670. The earliest known mention of a Jew in the English settlement was in 1695. More came, mostly Sephardic Jews who were “attracted by the civil and religious liberty of South Carolina.” (From the KKBE pamphlet) The KKBE was organized formally in 1750, but it was not until 1794 that they dedicated a new synagogue building “described then as the largest in the United States, spacious and elegant, which signified the high degree of social acceptance Charleston Jews enjoyed.” (Op. cit.) This Georgian style synagogue was destroyed in the 1838 Charleston fire, and was replaced in 1840 by the present synagogue, built in the same location. This synagogue is the second oldest in the U.S., and the oldest in continuous use. In 1980, it was designated as a National Historic Landmark.
This congregation is the birthplace of Reform Judaism in the United States, at least, according to them. Forty-seven KKBE congregants petitioned the trustees of the synagogue for changes to the Sephardic Orthodox liturgy, such as English translation of prayers, and sermons in English, but were denied. The petitioners then resigned from the congregation and organized “The Reformed Society of Israelites.” The Society lasted only nine years, but many of its innovations became part of today’s Reform Judaism, according to the KKBE’s pamphlet about their history. The KKBE is a Reform Jewish congregation today; the Orthodox congregants left and established a different synagogue.
Bobbi also made mention of KKBE members who participated in the American Revolution, the founding of Scottish Rite Masonry in America, and in the Civil War (180 on behalf of South Carolina,) as well as serving, of course, in the U.S. military ongoing. It was a very interesting presentation, and I was glad that I had hit the right moment to join the tour.
Leaving the synagogue, I continued on Hasell Street until I reached Meeting Street at the end of the block, and made a right turn. A long block later, I passed the Charleston City Market entrance.
A couple of blocks more, at the corner of Meeting and Broad streets, the intersection is known as the “Four Corners of Government.” On each corner stands a building that once represented a level of government: the U.S. Post Office, the County of Charleston Courthouse, Charleston’s City Hall, and St. Michael’s Episcopal Church. St. Michael’s is included because in colonial times, before the Constitution gave us separation of church and state, St. Michael’s was used to organize elections and some social services. The “Four Corners of Government” name stuck.
I was interested in St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, which was built in the 1760s, for other reasons. It was not open, and neither was its churchyard, although there are regular hours posted. It was just my bad luck to arrive when I did. Had it been open, I could have seen the cedar pew where George Washington sat during his visit in 1791, and the gravestones of two men who signed the U.S. Constitution on behalf of the State of South Carolina: Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and John Rutledge, not to be confused with his brother, Edward Rutledge, who signed the Declaration of Independence.
I headed down Broad Street, looking for a place to have lunch. Broad Street ends where it intersects East Bay Street, and that’s where the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon building is. That’s its current name. When it was built, it was called the Exchange & Customs Building.
I wasn’t planning to go in – I had seen it listed as a museum in my pamphlet, and my enthusiasm for museums has waned. I’ve seen a lot of them, and I don’t feel the need to look at buttons from George Washington’s uniform or the sword that someone used to fight pirates anymore.
However, I was intrigued by the sign across the front of the building that announced that the Declaration of Independence would be read aloud from the steps of the Exchange Building on July 4th, 2022, just as it had been read from those same steps in 1776. So, I crossed the street, intending to just peer into the entry.
I was greeted by a young man at the door who had diligently memorized and practiced the speech he used to greet visitors. The virtues and highlights of the Exchange simply poured forth from his lips. It included mention of the dungeon tour. The mention of a dungeon piqued my curiosity. I paid admission, skipped the room that held displays of artifacts, found the stairs, and descended into the cellar, now advertised as “The Dungeon.”
Alec, the costumed docent, introduced us to this lowest floor of the old Exchange and Customs House building. The “dungeon” started life as the storeroom for goods that were imported into the colony from Europe and the Caribbean. The Exchange used to be on the waterfront, and goods were unloaded from ships in the harbor, and brought into the storeroom. In the storeroom, there was a clerk who recorded what was brought in and the details necessary for collecting fees and taxes.
The building’s use changed suddenly in 1780, when the British took over Charles Town after a 42-day siege during the Revolution. The cellar and sections of the uppermost floor were used as a prison, or “provost.” Until the British abandoned Charles Town in 1782, the provost held Americans accused of treason by the British, along with pirates and other criminals. The dungeon was a dank, dirty, and disease-ridden place. In those times, the word “dungeon” was not an exaggeration.
Up on the top floor these days, however, is an excellent display about South Carolina’s participation in the congresses that produced the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, with some explanation of what the issues were. Slavery is not the only issue discussed – whether or not to include a listing of rights, for instance, is also – but it is pretty straightforward about slavery, acknowledging that the representatives from South Carolina argued strongly to preserve slavery and to prevent interference from the northern colonies.
In a room adjoining the larger hall is a collection of about a dozen portraits of people who played important parts in the Revolution, including the Marquis de Lafayette of France, who played a particularly critical part by bringing soldiers to fight and money for weapons, soldiers, and supplies to America from France. (This prompted American soldiers in WWI to greet the French with cries of “Lafayette, we are here!”)
There is also a display which has humorous overtones, being that hubris is not confined to any one generation. After George Washington’s visit to Charleston in 1791, the city councilors of Charleston commissioned a painting from the artist John Trumbull of President Washington. The story is told in the display:
The Exchange and Customs Building has been a pivotal part of Charleston’s history, and if you visit Charleston, I recommend taking some time out to visit. It’s worth the effort.
At the end of the waterfront park, I made a stop for gelato and coffee, relaxing, resting, watching the people go by, and just enjoying being alive in Charleston. I didn’t even mind the large raindrops that began to fall – after all, they were nice enough to wait until I had finished my gelato. However, I took the hint and, ditching the rest of my coffee into the bin, I picked up my umbrella and walked west from the park.
The raindrops were falling faster by the time I reached Philadelphia Alley, a wide path that bisects the block from Queen Street to Cumberland Street, passing behind St. Philip’s Episcopal Church. At one time, the alley, known as Kinloch’s Court, provided access to rental tenements behind Francis Kinloch’s home. The tenements were destroyed in a fire of 1796. The property was sold, but remained derelict for years. After another fire in 1810, the City of Philadelphia “graciously sent financial aid” to help rebuild. The court was reopened in 1811 and renamed to honor the generosity of Philadelphia’s citizens. The plaque in the alley where I got this story notes that the court was further renovated by the City of Charleston in 2005, “Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr.” I’m guessing that’s the Joe Riley of Joe Riley Waterfront Park. There’s no explanation of why Philadelphia was moved to help rebuild the court.
The rain was falling harder – lots harder – and I wrestled the golf-style umbrella open, and I walked further into the alley. The buildings on both sides provided some helpful shelter, but the very air was full of water.
By the time I got to the other end of the alley, the rain had stopped and the sun was reappearing. A short walk brought me to Church Street and St. Philip’s Episcopal Church front.
Not far from there was the back end of the City Market. It was filled with people, and I had to move with the crowd or not at all. The vendors there were selling mostly crafts, jewelry, some clothing, and some “gift food” items. It was not – that I could see – a farmers’ market.
On my way back to the hotel I passed this lovely old Art Deco movie theater. It was time for me to be on my way, but I had a lovely, relaxing time in Charleston before having to be serious about getting to my next stop. I hope I will have a chance to return someday.
The regional buses were well-organized, had numbered seats, and ran according to a schedule and marked stops. I was headed to Yalta, but I wanted to make a stop to see the Swallow’s Nest, a much-photographed building high on a cliff looking over the Black Sea. I asked the driver about where I should get off, and he told me the third stop would be best. When we got to the third stop, he told me not to get off, I should get off at the next stop. I was confused – the signs had indicated this stop was the one, but he insisted, and so I rode to the next stop.
There were three Ukrainian women who had seen and heard this discussion, and – lucky for me – they got off at the next stop, too. They didn’t seem to speak a lot of English, but their gestures and tone indicated that they thought the driver was wrong. They talked among themselves for a couple of minutes.
I should come with them, one said. So I did. We walked along a side road and shortly came to a gate across the road, and the gate had a security guard with a rifle. The women proceeded to explain to him (I surmised from tone and gestures) that the driver had been mistaken and now here I was through no fault of my own. The guard looked at me, standing there with my rolling L.L. Bean book bag and carrying my coat, and decided I was just a hapless tourist and it would be okay to let me in by what I imagine was the service gate.
He pointed, emphatically, at the pavement on one side of the middle stripe. I should walk on this side of the road, not that side, pointing at the other side. He walked to the side of the road, pointed, and shook his head vigorously. Do not wander off the road. Do you understand? (Or words to that effect.) I nodded. “Okay,” he said in English, and waved his arm, indicating I could go on. I thanked the women, and we all smiled and nodded, and I waved as I turned to go forward.
I was good for my word, of course. I just wanted to look at this building, and walked up the hill, which was pretty steep. I think it took about fifteen minutes to get to the top. It satisfied my curiosity. The views were incredible, but the building itself was a complete disappointment. In photos, it has a fairy tale air about it, but in person, close up, it’s just a tiny, rather artificial-looking building (those doors and windows are not extra-large) surrounded by pavement. When I was there, it appeared to be completely closed up and abandoned.
The walk down was shorter, just like always. The guard was still there, I said thank you again. He nodded, said something akin to “Have a nice day,” and I went and stood by the road, waiting for the next bus to Yalta to come by. I appreciated the help getting to see it, for sure – everyone was very kind to take time for me. But, lesson learned – when the guidebook says it’s not worth your time, you should think about reconsidering unless you have other reasons to go.
Crimea, and Yalta in particular, was a different place from the rest of Ukraine. Sunny and warm, life seemed brighter and more relaxed there. Probably because it served the country as a resort area. I have no idea what it is like now.
I couldn’t come to Yalta and not see the site of the famous Yalta Conference, where Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin came together to plot the end of WWII – how to handle the liberation of Europe from Germany, and how to handle post-war Germany itself. In February, 1945, the war wasn’t over in Europe, but there was a definite “matter of time” feeling in the air.
Before Livadia hosted the Yalta Conference, however, it was the summer retreat for Tsar Nicholas II and his family.
The Livadia estate had become a summer residence of the Russian imperial family in the 1860s, but the original palace was demolished and this palace, larger of course, was built of white Crimean limestone in 1911, during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II, the tsar who was overthrown in 1917.
There were about 119 rooms. I don’t remember many of them being open – a couple of palace rooms meant to convey palace life, and the principal rooms of the conference. But the most beautiful part of the palace was outside – the view of the Black Sea, the terraces, the white limestone building that sat at a low profile against the coast.
“After the February Revolution in 1917, Nicholas’ mother, Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, fled to Livadia with some other members of the imperial family. They were eventually rescued by the British ship HMS Marlborough, sent by the Dowager Empress’ nephew, King George V.” [Wikipedia, “Livadia Palace,” History.] They were lucky to have an escape. Handy, having this palace by the sea!
I had chosen to take the bus from Yalta to Simferopol to catch the train because it would take me through countryside I hadn’t seen. “Experienced” by now, I had bought my bus ticket and located my bus. Also by experience, when I stepped on board, I asked the driver if this was the bus to Simferopol – never hurts to confirm! He said yes, so I turned to walk up the aisle to my seat.
About halfway, I saw a smiling blonde woman, probably about my age then, glasses on her blue eyes, clearly trying to get my attention. I smiled back, and as I came closer, she said, “You speak English?”
“Yes,” I said. I rather had the impression this meant that she wanted to converse with me. I had found that people I met were curious about Americans and sometimes wanted to practice their English. My seat was right behind her, and she turned so she could look at me, still smiling.
“Where are you from?” she asked. The universal ice breaker.
“The U.S.,” I said. Her face fell. “Where are you from?”
“Moscow,” she said. She turned around, and that was the last word she spoke to me.
Trying to talk with Russians can be problematic for Americans, I think. Russia put out a lot of anti-NATO propaganda in Ukraine, displayed in Kyiv’s Maidan Square during the election campaigns going on when I first arrived with OSCE. There were drawings of a skeletal soldier in combat fatigues, with a knife in its mouth, pirate-style, and “NATO” etched on its helmet, crawling over a wall in a threatening manner towards (presumably) Ukrainians or Russians. The same pamphlet had a drawing of Uncle Sam holding an American flag planted in a map of Europe.
The woman on the bus was abrupt, not rude, exactly. She answered my question, after all. But, she made it clear that she was done talking to me. I have no idea if she was afraid to be talking to an American, or if she believed that we are all up to no good. I have had different experiences since Ukraine in the Republic of Georgia and in Kyrgyzstan, where I was able to have good conversations with Russian visitors, so it seems the conversations depend on the listeners, on both sides.
BACK IN KYIV
I was within a couple of days of my flight home. There was one more place that I very much wanted to see, and that was the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra. It is near, but separate from the St. Sophia complex that I had seen earlier in my Ukrainian visit.
The Pechersk Lavra was founded by Saint Anthony and Saint Theodosy in the 11th century. It became an important cultural and educational center, as well as spiritual. Contained within the Lavra complex is the Dormition Cathedral and several smaller surface churches, among them the Exaltation of the Cross and Nativity of the Virgin, and the Church of the Saviour on Berestovo. [whc.unesco.org]
“Dormition,” strictly defined, means “death resembling falling asleep” (Merriam-Webster,) but in an Orthodox context, it reflects the belief that Jesus’ mother, Mary, died without physical suffering and at peace in spirit. So this cathedral is dedicated to the Virgin Mary at her moment of earthly death.
The main church – the Holy Church of the Dormition of the Lavra – was destroyed in World War II. The Soviets blamed the advancing Nazi armies, and the Germans blamed the “scorched earth” tactics of the retreating Soviet army. Regardless of how the church was destroyed, it was not rebuilt after the war. The Soviets had no plans to restore the church, and converted the monastery into a museum park in 1928.
In 1989, however, after the fall of the Berlin wall, the “Kyiv Theological Seminary was resurrected.” [(c) Kyiv Holy Dormition Caves Lavra of Ukrainian Orthodox Church 1991-2023.]
And in 1995, following Ukrainian independence, the Dormition Cathedral was restored, and consecrated in 2000.
The relics of more than one hundred twenty saints are resting in peace in caves below the Lavra, making it one of the most important Christian pilgrimage centers in the world. [lavra.ua]
With Sergei, I was able to visit a part of the caves and view the remains. I have no photos of this part of the tour, but I remember very clearly standing next to Sergei in a small cave where there were several bodies lying in rock niches or on rock shelves. There were people in front of us, praying with a priest.
The only light came from candles burning in sconces. I wondered about the air supply! The relics were dressed in what looked like cassocks or vestments. The bodies looked dead, not “just sleeping,” but the stable temperature and cool, dry air has kept the relics from deteriorating as one would have expected.
The caves are spread through an area of about 20 hectares, about 50 acres, so it was not possible to walk through all the caves, plus they are, because of the geology, contained in two separate sections. There are six ancient underground churches, but we did not visit those.
The faithful believe that these “venerable fathers” are responsible for numerous miracles and healings. [lavra.ua] The candle lights, and the relics themselves, resting in the stillness of the caves, creates an emotional atmosphere. Even as one of the not-faithful, it was an absorbing experience, and I can still see it in my mind’s eye. I did not have any revelations, and no lightning bolts found me underground. I experienced a simple, quiet, meditative mind.
The last thing I did in Ukraine was to visit a local department store to buy gifts and souvenirs for my daughters and the people in my office. It was a little challenging because none of the clerks spoke any English, but they understood basically what I was after. And, we established that they accepted credit cards. I went through the section, trying to figure out what people at home might want, and what I could carry. Since I had managed to travel through Ukraine with just my book bag, I knew I would need a suitcase as well. It all worked out in the end. I was happy with what I was able to get, and they seemed pleased, too. I’m sure their families all heard about the American lady when they got home.
My trip home was uneventful, but the trip itself still lives in my memory – the people, the culture, the OSCE – all of it was pure adventure for me and I am still grateful that I was able to go. I have been on other adventures since then, but the first is always special.
The trip from Lviv to the Crimean Peninsula seemed like it would be a direct train ride from Lviv to Sevastopol, and originally that was my plan, but my Lonely Planet guidebook advised against it. According to LP, the train route passed through Moldova, and sometimes the Moldovan immigration authorities decided to check the trains. Anyone without a visa for Moldova (i.e., me) could be left at the border. (This was in 2006, so the train route or Moldova may have changed by now.) Since this would be an overnight train, that would be “left at the border in the middle of the night.” No, thanks.
The new plan was to take the night train back to Kyiv, spend the day there, and then board the night train to Sevastopol, on the shore of the Black Sea. I bought my 2nd class ticket and then headed for my day’s objective – the Chernobyl Museum.
THE CHERNOBYL MUSEUM, KYIV
The nuclear power plant at Chernobyl, near the city of Pripyat in northern Ukraine, exploded in April 26, 1986, and burned until May 4, 1986. Ironically, the accident was precipitated by a safety test that went awry. There were steam explosions and the reactor core melted, which destroyed the reactor building. It was the first nuclear accident of this magnitude, given the highest rating of 7, indicating maximum severity. (The next, and thankfully so far, the only other, rating of 7, was the Fukushima disaster of 2011 in Japan.)
Within hours of the explosion, two workers were killed from non-radiological causes. Twenty-six of 600 workers died by radiation effects within four months, and 106 workers suffered acute radiation sickness, but did not die. During 1986-87, another 200,000 workers were exposed to elevated levels of radiation. Ultimately, about 600,000 workers were involved in the clean-up. Most of the later workers were not exposed to elevated levels of radiation.
The explosion contaminated wide areas of Belarus, the Russian Federation, and Ukraine. The area was home to millions of residents, but the majority received only small radiation doses. Ultimately, about 335,000 people were displaced by the disaster.
The area of the Chernobyl plant was covered by the USSR’s temporary sarcophagus. A permanent sarcophagus, funded by the G-7, the European Commission, and Ukraine, was completed by 2018: “The New Safe Confinement.” Around the area is “the exclusion zone.” During the OSCE mission, some observers were sent near the exclusion zone – not happy people, but they went.
(To read more about the disaster, you can consult the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation report, UNSCEAR 2008, or the International Atomic Energy Agency, http://www.iaea.org.)
After a couple of hours in the Chernobyl Museum, I was ready to think of something else, so I found a cafe, and spent some time drinking coffee and reading. The weather was warming and people were enjoying the sunshine.
The overnight train ride from Kyiv to Sevastopol is about thirteen hours, much of it in darkness. And, it was on this train ride that I learned 2nd Class compartments were NOT sorted by gender. I had just been lucky those first two times. This time, there were two women and two men and none of us knew each other.
The clothes to wear at night on the train were what we used to call “jogging suits,” those matching loose jackets and long pants with knit cuffs around the ankles, sewn out of that velvety, velour fabric or jersey that was popular back then. These worked for all genders. As darkness came, the men and women each took their turn standing in the hallway of the train car while the others changed into their jogging suits. Once again, I made do with my jeans and t-shirt, and I was comfortable enough.
We introduced ourselves, and the woman riding with us was fascinated that I was 1) from America, and 2) traveling alone. That is an ongoing theme in my travels, even now. I don’t remember her name, but she was Russian and didn’t speak English. We discovered that we both spoke a bit of French. She called me, “la seule femme,” meaning literally “the only woman.” I think she was trying to say, “woman alone.” I’m not criticizing her effort – she was close: “woman alone” is “une femme seule.” I doubt that I’d have done better off the top of my head. The men spoke only when necessary or when spoken to, and even then it was not in English. I think they didn’t know very much English, and were not interested in talking anyway.
We were all on our own “mission,” and after disembarking we all went our ways, which meant I headed to my hotel.
While in Sevastopol, I wanted to visit Bakhchysarai. The town’s name means “Garden-Palace” and it is the home of the Khan’s Palace, dating from the 16th century.
Thanks to my map from Lviv, I could decode street signs and the occasional English word written in Cyrillic, but I still didn’t speak Ukrainian, nor could I read it or understand public announcements. This caused some angst when it came to transportation because I worried about catching the wrong bus or train and ending up in the wrong place.
I thought I was in the right place for the right train, but I was looking for confirmation. I looked around the platform. “Does anyone here speak English?” I asked of anyone listening, and smiled. Smiling goes a long way nearly everywhere.
From about twenty feet away, a young man with light brown hair and crystalline blue eyes looked me in the eye and said very clearly, “I speak English.” And that’s how I met Sergei, who spoke English very well, and his friend, who apparently didn’t pay as much attention in English class. I’m sorry that I didn’t get the friend’s name, but he was smiling and cheerful and they were both very nice.
Using my guidebook, I explained where I wanted to go. Sergei said they were taking the train, too, and that stop was on their way. “Come with us.” I stepped onto the train behind them.
I don’t remember the train ride being very long – two or three stops – but it was long enough to find out that they were fourteen years old and went to school together. They were on their way home and it wasn’t at the same stop as Bakhchysarai. I thanked them again, and said goodbye.
Bakhchysarai was the palace of the Crimean Tatar Khans, who began building the sizeable complex in the early 1500s. They lived there for about two hundred fifty years, until the collapse of the Tatar state in 1783.
Muslims face Mecca when they pray. A “mihrab” is a niche in the wall of a mosque, and shows the proper direction of Mecca, which is on the Saudi Arabian peninsula, near the Red Sea. In the smaller mosque at Bakhchysarai, the mihrab has seven rows of tiles representing the seven levels of Heaven. Above the mihrab, is a stained glass window, symbolizing the seal of Suleiman, which is a hexagonal (six-pointed) star.
The Bakhchysarai Fountain was built at the order of Qirim Giray Khan to memorialize his grief at the death of his young wife, Maria, a Polish girl in his harem. It is believed that Maria was murdered by another wife who had lost the Khan’s favor to Maria. The fountain represents the eternal tears of the Khan for his lost wife.
In the photo below, there is a bust of Alexander Pushkin, a Russian poet, who visited the palace, and was moved to write a narrative poem, “The Fountain of Bakhchysarai,” to honor the story of the Khan and Maria.
I got back to my hotel by means of a “marshutra,” basically a large van providing regular transportation for shorter distances for one price and a regular route that seemed to repeat about every half hour or hour. By the time I was in Bakhchysarai, I had learned to signal the driver by holding my arm out, palm down, hand aligned, pointing slightly downward. I wasn’t always successful in crowded places, but as the sun was starting to fade, my determination to catch a ride must have been evident. The driver slammed on his brakes to pick me up!
Crimea in April is lovely and warm. In 2006, it was a popular place for vacationers from other parts of Ukraine, Russia, and Germany. I stayed someplace in the central part of Sevastopol and walked a lot.
To the west of Sevastopol is the National Preserve of Tauric Chersonesus, the remains of a Greek city that prospered on the shore of the Black Sea from about 400 BCE until the beginning of the 15th century. The “Tauric” designated the region, “Chersonesus” is Greek for peninsula. It was used as a trading port, and exported locally-made wine.
Christianity came to Ukraine in fits and starts. St. Andrew was there in the 1st century, and there were a couple of church officials who tried to get a toehold during the several hundred years between St. Andrew and Volodymyr the Great, but it was not until Volodymyr was baptized around 988 AD that it was truly established.
Below is one of my all-time favorite photographs, taken in more hopeful, less stressful times. I was walking uphill through the park near the piers, and they were walking downhill toward the piers, where there were ships docked, grey and military-looking. As the group came closer, I realized they must be members of the Russian navy, apparently ashore to run errands (see the bags on the bench.) I thought it would be fun to have a photo, so I waved to the man who seemed to be in charge, who spoke English, and asked. He said yes, and spoke to the others. They gathered round and he took the photo. I thanked him and we parted ways. It was five or ten minutes of smiles and a couple of handshakes that demonstrated countries are made of human beings, not just governments.
NOTE: In the course of researching the Bakhchysarai palace, I discovered several articles from December, 2022, about the “restoration” of the palace by the Russian occupiers in Crimea. The palace was nominated several years ago to be a UNESCO World Heritage site, so there is great concern about the activity at the site. Ukrainians claim that the site is being stripped of its historic value by the Russian occupiers. These articles can be found by googling “Bakhchysarai Palace.” Apparently, there are also tours being conducted by someone, although the organizations offering such do not identify themselves as either Russian or Ukrainian, so they may be someone else altogether.
My very busy March in Warm Springs began in January this year.
When I returned from the U.K., I already had plans for activities to support some of my goals – becoming more fit, reading more, and catching up on my travel blog. The exercise piece was slowed by having been sick while in the U.K., so I decided to see what kind of writing-oriented activities might be offered near me. (You may have noticed that I like to write.) This was on the 19th of January, a Thursday evening, and as I googled “writer conferences,” up popped Hollins University.
I had never heard of Hollins University, so I looked it up – I was really NOT interested in some for-profit, commercial outfit. But, it turns out that Hollins University is quite respectable and respected, and has existed since 1842, thank you very much, in Roanoke, Virginia, supported by their alumnae, and about 75 minutes from my house. They were hosting the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference. On January 21st. The day after tomorrow. The ticket I bought turned out to be the very last one.
As advertised, it was a very full, one-day on Saturday only, conference, the first “in-person” conference since 2020 and the pandemic hiatus. Some workshops were led by Hollins University professors, some by published writers, and some by (very) small publishers. Topics included grammar (really), creative non-fiction, interviewing, plotting ahead (or not,) character development, and others. I met a hundred people, at least. There were no major revelations, as I have taken university writing courses and read about writing, but the enthusiasm of the other writers was contagious. Overall, my main takeaway was inspiration, and I was happy with that.
By February, my energy was returning, and exercise was back on the menu. As I sit here now in April, I’ve made some progress on the blog and I’m fifteen pounds lighter than when I started last fall. I love living in the country, but it does mean that driving to the gym is a time sink. Driving anywhere is a time sink, even when I bunch up errands. Plus, last fall I had been invited to join a local women’s book club, so there was time devoted to required reading!
And there was music. One of the things that attracted me to Bath County was Garth Newel, a not-for-profit organization that promotes chamber music. Not far away, in Staunton (pronounced locally as “Stanton,” with a short “a,”) is the Heifetz Music Institute, dedicated to the “artistic growth and career development” of young musicians. (Jascha Heifetz was a Lithuanian prodigy who came to the U.S. as a teenager, a violin virtuoso from childhood.)
During March, there were concerts at Garth Newel and the Heifetz Institute. Heifetz Institute sponsored “Bach Around the Clock,” one entire day, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., of performances of various Bach pieces by various artists – two were part of the Garth Newel resident piano quartet, one was a recent winner of a Canadian organ competition, among others. For someone who likes Bach’s music, it was a great day. The event was held in a sizeable local church that had a sizeable pipe organ. However, I’ve decided that listening to a full-on giant organ playing Bach is a little like listening to a full-on fire hose. I enjoy other treatments more.
Staunton is also home to the American Shakespeare Center. I attended their performance of “Eurydice.” It’s not a Shakespeare play, but rather a “modern retelling of the myth of Eurydice and Orpheus by Sara Ruhl.” Mixed feelings about that, however, I’m hoping to attend something else this year.
Also in March – this was still March – was the Virginia Festival of the Book, an annual event held in Charlottesville. I went to two full days, and part of a third. This was not a writers’ conference, but focused on the books instead. There were demonstrations of printing, illustrating, and bookbinding, plus a bus load of authors participating in panel discussions about their books and the themes of said books. They were all interesting, people asked questions, and people bought a lot of books, including me.
There was a presentation on the Modern Library books scheduled as the last part of the annual business meeting of the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia. The annual business meeting was just as exciting as you would expect, but the presentation about Modern Library books was very interesting to people like me.
The Modern Library is a wonderful series of books published between 1925 and 1959, “the most important American reprint series of significant works of literature and thought published in the twentieth century.” Discussion included the method of printing, decisions to illustrate or not to illustrate, book dimensions, cover design, binding, and just about every aspect of book production one can think of. After the presentation, there was a display of a few books and associated memorabilia to peruse.
I had not known that Bennett Cerf was a co-publisher for the series. I knew he had written books of humor, but there was more that I couldn’t remember. (None of the books in the Modern Library are by Cerf, just FYI.) There was a letter from Cerf to William Faulkner on the table, negotiating for publication of Sound and Fury or Sanctuary. I caught the eye of the display’s guardian and asked, “Why do I remember Bennett Cerf?” “He wrote books, but he was also on ‘What’s My Line?’ which is what most people recognize.” “Including me,” I said, because as soon as he said it, I remembered watching the show (in black and white) at my grandparents’ house. It was one of their favorites.
Sunday, in an interview held at Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home,) Edward J. Larson, the author of American Inheritance: Liberty and Slavery in the Birth of a Nation, 1765-1795, discussed the issue of slavery and the American Revolution. Thirty years is not much time, history-wise, but his interest was mainly in the discussion among the delegates who struggled with the issue during the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and, later, the Constitution of the United States.
I had worn my “Friday Harbor Washington” sweatshirt to that particular event, and I was intrigued enough with the book to buy a copy, so I was in line to have it signed.
When I got to the front of the line, Larson looked at my sweatshirt and asked if I had ever been to Friday Harbor. Well, yes. I added that I had lived in Washington for almost thirty years. Oh, he said, we used to live on Camano Island. That’s in Island County. Yes, I lived on Whidbey Island, the other island. (I skipped my paragraph on how big Island County used to be and how it ended up with two islands. There was a line behind me.) Did you live there between 1997 and 2007, I asked. He thought for a moment, and said yes, they had. Well, I was your county auditor, I said. He was a little taken aback. I dug into my bag for a card with my name and email address on it and gave it to him. He recovered his composure and signed my book, and I went on my way.
It continues to be a small world.
Easter! My neighbors across the road Ryan and Mary invited me to join them for Easter dinner and an egg hunt. Dinner included great company, not to mention roasted lamb, one of my favorites, genuinely new potatoes and asparagus, and good wine.
So, it’s April. Spring is here now in a serious way, and I’m realizing that I need to be busy, furthering the goals I set for my staying-in-one-place-for-a-while “sabbatical.” I just don’t know if I have the time….
Andrew, with Olivia and Katie (Sarah stayed home to study) – plus me, drove off to explore Rochester. It wasn’t a long drive. If you check a map, you’ll find that Gillingham (where we were staying,) Chatham, and Rochester are all bunched together on the south side of the Medway River, near the mouth of the river, in Kent, which is in southwestern England.
Rochester claims Charles Dickens as a famous son, even though he was born in Portsmouth, England (1812), because he was brought by his parents to Rochester as a young child. During most of his adult life, Dickens lived in London, but when he was 48, he moved to Chatham, where he died on June 9, 1870, aged 58.
The buildings and scenery around Rochester and Chatham helped color Dickens’ novels. He was a prolific writer, and very popular during his life – he is buried in Westminster Abbey, despite his wish to be buried at the Rochester Cathedral – but many of his writings languish in obscurity now. The works best known today are probably A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist. David Copperfield, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities, still a respectable legacy. In Rochester, the buildings that have been identified in the novels and stories have signs on them, sometimes with information such as the title and character.
Rochester’s oldest and biggest claim to fame by far is the Rochester Cathedral. Founded in 604, it is the second-oldest cathedral in England, Canterbury Cathedral being the oldest, founded in 597. The Reverend Canon Matthew Rushton of Rochester Cathedral, in an essay posted on the cathedral’s web page, pointed out that the Canterbury Cathedral was made from King Ethelbert’s palace, whereas the Rochester Cathedral was purpose-built in a new (in 604) building. The Reverend Canon, diplomatically, does not argue about Canterbury, but vaguely poses the question: just how does one define “first?”
The first Rochester Cathedral, which is not the one you see today, was begun in 604 under Bishop Justus on land donated by King Ethelbert of Kent. Unfortunately, the original cathedral was severely damaged by fire in 1178. There is no visible trace of this Saxon cathedral surviving because the “new” cathedral was built on top of it. The oldest part of the building pictured above, which is the Norman cathedral built under the supervision of Bishop Gundulf, is from 1083. Bishop Gundulf also founded a Benedictine monastery and an adjacent priory, to serve the pilgrim traffic.
Pilgrimages were “a thing” in the medieval world, and an important thing, at that. People would show their devotion to God and the Church by traveling to places that were considered especially holy. Canterbury Cathedral was a popular destination for English pilgrims because it held the shrine of St. Augustine, and later added the shrine of St. Thomas Becket. Some of you may have read Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which is a Middle English collection of fictional tales told by fictional pilgrims on their way to Canterbury Cathedral.
Rochester Cathedral benefited from the pilgrim traffic. It came mostly from London, but other parts of Britain as well, on the way to Canterbury. Rochester was located at the best crossing of the Medway River, which had to be crossed to reach Canterbury. This crossing was so important that Bishop Gundulf built Rochester Castle to protect it – I found out why a bishop built a castle later on. Pilgrims made contributions to the cathedrals and it was an important source of revenue for cathedrals and priories, and especially for those who could muster a holy shrine or two.
In 2019, the Rochester Cathedral used their very large nave to provide outreach to their community through…Ready? Miniature golf. In the nave. It included replicas of some landmarks. Naturally, the BBC picked up on it, and you can read the article through the link above.
The large, central, arched window of the West Front was added in the 1400s. The large spire was added in 1904, which was intended to be a replica of the spire put up by Bishop Hamo de Hythe in 1343. The entire West Front originally was painted – brightly! The stone facing contains traces of pigmentation, revealing that the surface was painted. This was the face of the cathedral seen by pilgrims and visitors as they crossed the Medway River.
Other features of the West Front are the statues on either side of the front door – these are Solomon, King of Israel, on the left, and the Queen of Sheba on the right. They are heavily eroded, and are identified by documentation of the cathedral building. A larger statue, slightly above the door on the left, is Bishop Gundulf, holding a model of the Tower of London, which he designed. I couldn’t find the identity of the statue to the right, but the figure appears to be similar to the William of Hoo Way, mentioned later. The “tympanum,” the semi-circlular carved area above the front door, features Jesus flanked by angels, and winged figures of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John beyond.
The eight statues above represent the following people, from left to right:
St. Andrew, the Apostle of Jesus, in whose honor the cathedral was originally dedicated. The crossed sticks he carries represent the cross upon which he was crucified – nailed upside-down to an X-shaped cross.
Ethelbert, the first Christian Saxon King of Kent, who gave the land for the original cathedrals in Rochester and Canterbury.
Bishop Justus, ordained as the first Bishop of Rochester by St. Augustine, who was the first Archbishop of Canterbury, in 604.
St. Paulinius, the first Bishop of York, then became Bishop of Rochester. He died 644. Paulinius had a shrine at Rochester that was reputedly covered in silver, destroyed during the Reformation.
Gundulf, the Bishop of Rochester 1077 – 1108, remembered as a “man of holiness,” and a prolific builder, apparently with talent that was widely recognized. Founded the Monastery of St. Andrew, and began the building of the present Rochester Cathedral and Rochester Castle. Established Malling Abbey as a Benedictine nunnery. Gundulf was also the architect for the Tower of London and founded the Corps of Royal Engineers.
William of Hoo Way, a sacrist of Rochester around 1200, who came from the Hoo Peninsula, and played a significant role in building the cathedral we see today.
Bishop Walter de Merton, the Lord Chancellor of England under Henry III and Edward I, described in a photo above.
John Fisher, a Bishop of Rochester who was beheaded by Henry VIII because Fisher would not accept Henry as the head of the English Church.
Rochester Cathedral was home to three major shrines during medieval times: St. Paulinius, described above; St. Ithamar, who was the first native-born bishop in Britain (died 655); and St. William of Perth (died 1201.)
St. William of Perth’s story is told by the Reverend Canon Matthew Rushton on the Rochester Cathedral’s website. In 1201, a baker from Perth in Scotland was on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, and was planning on continuing to the Holy Land. He lodged at the Priory of St. Andrew (at Rochester Cathedral) but was robbed and killed the next day by his servant, who might have been his adopted son. (Summarized by me.)
“A local woman was apparently cured of her mental illness by festooning the body with honeysuckle and pressing the flowers to her head.” The monks at St. Andrews priory recovered the body and brought it to Rochester Cathedral. Whatever their intent, it turned out to be very profitable.
“Legend has it that it was the second most visited shrine in England after St. Thomas [Becket] of Canterbury. Edward I visited and left a donation.”
The Act of Supremacy, passed by Parliament in 1534, made Henry VIII the head of the church in England, and in 1536, Henry began disbanding the hundreds of monasteries, priories, convents, and friaries in England, Wales, and Ireland. He appropriated their income and assets, including lands, and destroyed the buildings, attempting to break the hold of the Pope in England. It also delivered to Henry the money he needed to conduct his wars in Europe.
Following Henry VIII, Edward VI and the Reformation’s Protestant bishops destroyed whatever shrines they found, and following later still, the Victorian restoration of the cathedral removed whatever traces were left of the shrines at Rochester.
The Crypt, on the lower level, was open. It has a cafe where we took a welcome break, the Ithamar Chapel, and a museum, which is well worth a visit.
The museum has created a timeline of events in the life of Rochester Cathedral, and some displays covering life in medieval times. There were two that were particularly interesting – one was an enlargement of an accounting journal. I know that “accounting” elicits glazed eyes, but the expenses listed – day-to-day food, wine for meals, wine for sacraments, candles, charitable works in the area, payments to workmen, and more – are used to illustrate medieval life, and life in the priory in particular. It was a busy place, and this display will show you how and why.
The timeline mentions two events that are easy to forget, but were part of the life of Rochester Cathedral and England, generally. The first is decidedly English – the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 that established the rule of law in England. It was a battle, but the writing was on the wall – the monarch no longer had absolute power. The second was the Plague: in 1348, the Black Death killed half – half – of the English population. Amazing to think about. Half of your friends and neighbors, gone.
The other display I particularly liked was about the Textus Roffensis, which has a history of its own. Written in the “Rochester Prickly” script (unique to Rochester) by a monk in about 1122, it contains documents that were important in their time.
The first part is the earliest known codification of English laws, promulgated by King Ethelbert of Kent, as well as copies of the laws of other Anglo-Saxon kings. It was written in Latin and in Old English, for the first time. The second part is a “cartulary,” a collection of charters that recorded grants of land, property, and rights belonging to the Rochester Cathedral Priory.
How Rochester Castle came to be built: One of the charters records the granting of land in Buckinghamshire to the Rochester Cathedral Priory from King William II around 1100, on the condition that Bishop Gundulf would build a stone castle at Rochester for the king. “The monks seem to have agreed to this, but made it clear that they would not be responsible for the castle’s future upkeep….” [From Textus Roffensis The Rochester Book, a pamphlet of the Rochester Cathedral.] In turn, the land in Buckinghamshire would belong to the monks of Rochester as long as the castle exists. Contracts and their obligations were invented a long time ago.
The next destination turned out to be said castle, which stands right across the road from the cathedral.
The castle is open, but is not in daily use for centuries, unlike the cathedral. As a result, it has significantly deteriorated. We climbed the steps all the way to the top – if you had been there, we would have waved from the walkway between the two towers above!
When we left the castle, we walked back toward the main road again. Andrew had an errand to do yet, so we were able to peer at some more of historic Rochester.
Errands and sightseeing completed, we headed back to the car, and back to Gillingham.
NOTE: You can read about my visit to Canterbury, A Canterbury Tale and More About Canterbury, posted December, 2017, and January, 2018, respectively.
Here is why I came to England at all this year: Christmas with my daughter, Sarah, and her family – Andrew, Olivia, and Katie. I was meeting them in Gillingham, a small city in Kent. Andrew was raised in Kent, so it was “home for Christmas” in a way for him.
The first few days were taken up with family, Christmas, and, for me, being really sick for two of those days, but getting better after that. (I’m all better now.) I was able to meet more of Andrew’s family, who are friendly and enjoyable company. Hopefully, I’ll have the chance to see them again.
The Brits love the holiday season! There were many events, but – except for the churches – they were not religious in tone. All were welcome, and the winter holidays were just an excuse for everyone to get out and have some fun. So, we did!
Andrew was the guide, because he was most familiar with the territory. Our first outing was to a park with light displays along a path through the trees. There were some really lovely effects, and the kids had a great time!
During the days, between store runs, homework, and Sarah’s paper for her law class, we worked on one of my presents!
The girls’ room was right next door to mine, and of course, they decided that they would stay up for midnight! Two of us made it. One was just too tired.
Nearby Chilston Park is Leeds Castle, which was open on New Year’s Day. It has a long and colorful history, beginning in the Domesday Survey of 1086, where it is called “Esledes,” an Old English word meaning slope or hillside. The Manor of Esledes was owned by Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux and half-brother of William the Conqueror. Odo was not favored by King William “Rufus” II, and the estate was taken from Odo and given to Hamo de Crevecoeur, whose heirs owned it for 175 years.
The castle – as opposed to the manor house – was first built in 1119 by Hamo’s grandson, Robert, to serve as a Norman stronghold. The main fortification, the Keep, was built on the smaller of two islands in the Lens River, the islands being formed by large outcroppings of solid rock. On the larger island, known as the Bailey, were built the domestic buildings. The islands were linked by a drawbridge. If attacked, refuge would be provided by the Keep, and the drawbridge raised.
Leeds was a royal castle for almost 300 years, beginning with Queen Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward I. Ownership was granted by the king to his queen, which became her property until she died. The property would then revert to the then-current king, and while it was a royal castle, tradition dictated that it would be granted to the king’s queen. The castle tour has an entertaining presentation about the six medieval queens who have lived there. But in 1552, Edward VI, who died at 16 and never married a queen to receive a castle-gift, gave it to Anthony St. Leger as reward for service to Henry VIII. It remained in private ownership from 1552 until 1974.
It was Lady Baillie, who bought the estate in 1925, that brought Leeds Castle into its modern heyday. She supervised (and paid for) a major overhaul of the castle. Leeds became one of the great country houses of the 1930s, providing grand hospitality for statesmen, European royalty, and American movie stars.
Lady Baillie established the Leeds Castle Foundation before she died in 1974, so that the castle and its rich history would be preserved. The foundation manages it still.
“When I’m good,
I’m very good,
But when I’m bad,
– From the mirror of Lady Baillie’s vanity, a quote from an early Mae West movie.
Wandering through the castle was a great way to spend the afternoon of New Year’s Day. There was a surprisingly large number of people visiting on the holiday, but it was not at all crowded. We finished our visit with a scrumptious lunch – mine was “shepherd’s pie” – at one of the eateries on the castle grounds, and then set a course for Gillingham.
Andrew’s agenda the next day included a visit to Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland in London. I expected displays of light, maybe some ice sculpture, but it was so much more!
For some, life does not stop for the holidays. Sarah had work to do for her law classes, so Andrew, Olivia, Katie, and I went off to see Rochester, an old city nearby. That’s where we’ll go next.
I had a sight-filled first day in Oxford, but there is more Oxford and I had another day, Wednesday. Part of my day was spent in bookstores, looking for Christmas presents. Books are my favorite present to give. I suppose it’s because I love them so much.
Book stores abound in Oxford, but I think only one of them qualifies as a “sight” to see. Blackwell’s originated in Oxford. The first, and for many years the main store, opened January 1, 1879, at 50 Broad Street. Its founder was Benjamin Henry Blackwell, the son of Benjamin Harris Blackwell, the first librarian at the Oxford City Library, which opened in 1854. Customers can still see the first bookcase to be fitted into the 1879 book shop, which was 14 feet square.
By 1938, Blackwell’s had taken over numbers 51, 48, and 49 on Broad Street, and in 1966, they opened the Norrington Room in the basement, which had two and a half miles of book shelves. Two years after the Norrington Room, Blackwell’s opened 53 Broad Street to house the bookshop section that stocked art books, graphic novels, posters, and manga publications.
By 2022, Blackwell’s, by now with stores all over the U.K., was suffering a decline in business, like so many bookstores, independent and chain alike. It had been a family-run business for 143 years, but in that year, Toby Blackwell sold the business to Waterstones. The Waterstones chain was founded in London in 1982, and in 1987, their store on Broad Street in Oxford was opened. Joined in 2022, Blackwell’s and Waterstones, operating their separate stores, dominate three blocks of Broad Street in Oxford.
There was another place I wanted to visit on Broad Street – the History of Science Museum, next to the Sheldonian Theater.
These nameless heads, according to yesterday’s guide, degrade over time due to weather effects – rain, snow, sun, etc. – and so the heads that we are looking at are actually the third set. No one is very sure what happened to the first two sets. In the old days, the old heads were just old. The guide speculated that some of them “might have made their way into a few local gardens,” which strikes an authentic note – I would have put one into my garden, if available. Now there is a move to recover the heads and make some kind of display with them. I’m sure you can thank the local tourism organisation for that idea.
Admission to the museum is free and it’s well worth a visit. Two of the most popular displays are the collection of orreries and Einstein’s Blackboard.
The name of the device, “orrery,” is from the 4th Earl of Orrery, Charles Boyle (1674 – 1731). Boyle attended Christ Church at Oxford, was a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a supporter of horology. I had to look that up. According to Merriam-Webster, it is the study of clocks and other time-keeping devices. George Graham, is credited with creating the first mechanical solar system, which is, after all, the largest time–keeping device we know. He named the orrery in honor of his patron, Charles Boyle.
Boyle is buried in Westminster Abbey. He left his collection of scientific instruments and his collection of books to the Christ Church Library, who in turn donated them to the museum. These instruments, particularly his collection of orreries, now make up a significant part of the displays at the History of Science Museum.
A side note I discovered while reading about orreries – the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, at the University of Manchester, UK, is home to what is believed to be the largest orrery in the world at 16.4 feet in diameter (5 meters.) That orrery uses a system of 52 brass gears connected to a large crank. The gears keep the planets orbiting in the correct positions and speeds in relationship to each other as the crank is turned. The crank can be operated by visitors, who are thereby orchestrating the movement of the solar system themselves. Needless to say, it has proved enormously popular. I’m sure Charles Boyer would be delighted, and when I get back to the UK, I will be visiting Manchester.
Einstein’s blackboard was the result of three lectures on the Theory of Relativity that Einstein gave in May, 1931. A couple of attendees were instructed to remove – after Einstein finished – the blackboard, intact. They placed a sheet of glass over the blackboard, thereby preserving the formulas written by Einstein himself. Priceless.
After lunch at the Weston Library Cafe and a visit to their book store and gift shop to look for potential Christmas presents, I walked toward Radcliffe Square, past the Bridge of Sighs and the Old Schools quad. The tour had visited those yesterday, but had skirted the Radcliffe Camera on the west side to visit St. Mary’s Passage with the faun doorway, bypassing the All Souls’ College and the University Church of St. Mary. Today I could take the path not traveled yesterday.
I waited until the people left, then stepped forward, trying to find a place where I could position my camera and get a photo of the college without the bars of the gate in the way. A small pickup truck pulled up and a man got out. He was dressed as a groundskeeper or maintenance staff, and put a key in the gate’s lock. I asked if the college was opening. He said no, but seeing my camera, he added that I could come in to take a photo if I would like. People are frequently very nice when they have the chance. I stepped in behind him as he entered. He stood by, clearly waiting for me to be done and he would lock the gate again. I focused, so to speak. The photos are below.
All Souls was endowed by the Archbishop in the 1430s, and the college received its foundation charter from King Henry VI in 1438. All Souls had two purposes. The first was a religious function like the other colleges. The Warden and forty Fellows were supposed to pray in the chapel for the souls of the founders, for those who had fallen in the wars against France, and for “all of the faithful departed.”
The second function was unique among the Oxford colleges. It was a scholarly purpose, but unlike the other colleges, All Souls – as envisioned by the Archbishop – was to be the medieval equivalent of a graduate college, an institution designed for advanced study. From that day to this, with just a few exceptions, the college never has taken in undergraduates.
Fellows were supposed to have studied somewhere else for at least three years, and most of them had a BA when they came to All Souls. At All Souls, they would study for advanced degrees in theology, law (civil or canon, i.e. Church law), and medicine, but the emphasis was on theology and law. The idea was to prepare for service in government or for the Church. Chichele called them “an unarmed militia,” designed to restore national prestige and “good order in the face of heresy at home and stalemate abroad.” In the six centuries’ history, there were lapses, probably meaning the Reformation and the Civil War. Even so, All Souls still awarded degrees to luminaries such as Christopher Wren, William Gladstone, Lord Curzon, and Lawrence of Arabia, among others.
And speaking of Christopher Wren (again,) one of the standout features of All Souls is the sundial that he designed. It sits, facing south, on a building that forms the left side of the quadrangle.
University Church of St. Mary the Virgin – known interchangeably as St. Mary’s or University Church – sits on the south side of Radcliffe Square, a site long occupied by an Anglo-Saxon church. Not much is known about the founding or early history of the church, but by the 1100s, St. Mary’s had become an integral part of Oxford University. Before the Divinity School or the Sheldonian Theatre was built, awarding of degrees was held here, students and academics attended services here, and it was here that the academics would congregate when important business was to be discussed and voted upon.
The oldest part of the church is the tower, which dates from 1270. The spire on top of the tower was added in the early 1300s. A building next to the old church was added in 1320 to provide a meeting room for the congregation of academics on the ground floor, and a library on the upper floor, where it existed until Duke Humfrey’s library was opened in 1488. (Although, it must be said that the Divinity School doesn’t mention it.) The meeting room is now a cafe.
Those are the oldest parts because the old church itself was crumbling by the mid-1400s, worn by much time and much use. The chancel (the forward part with the altar) was rebuilt in the 1460s. The nave (where the worshipers gathered) continued to deteriorate, but was finally rebuilt in the “new Perpendicular style,” completed in 1510. These building projects fully replaced the old church building.
The chancel, according to St. Mary’s pamphlet, is “aligned at a very slight angle from the nave,” symbolizing Christ’s head leaning toward the repentant thief on the cross.” I couldn’t help but wonder if the symbolism was born to cover a design or construction error during building – an early example of reverse-engineering the story to fit the result. But, the pamphlet goes on to say that this is a common feature of many medieval churches, known as a “weeping chancel.” So, there you are.
The years between 1534, when Henry VIII separated the English church from the Roman Catholic church, and the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the United Kingdom’s last Catholic monarch was deposed, were tense. The religious and political issues surrounding the Reformation, the Church of England, the Civil Wars, the Restoration, and the Glorious Revolution are deeply intertwined. The conflicts involved the Church of England v. Catholicism v. Protestant Reformation v. the monarchy v. Parliament, and the shift of power among them. Because of these, life in Oxford and all of Great Britain was uneasy for more than a hundred and fifty years.
St. Mary’s bore witness to dangerous times during the reign of Mary Tudor, a devout Catholic. Three men of the Church of England were charged with heresy and tried in St. Mary’s: Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer, and Bishops Latimer and Ridley. Latimer and Ridley were condemned and burned at the stake on Broad Street. Cranmer recanted, but several months later, when called upon to submit to the Catholic church, he withdrew his recantation, and was burned at the stake in 1556. There is a marker on Broad Street where the burnings took place, near St. Michael’s at the North Gate.
During the Civil Wars, in 1643, Charles I took refuge in Oxford for a time, making himself comfortable in Christ Church. Oxford supported the monarchy, which turned out to be the losing side – Charles I was later beheaded in London, January 30, 1649.
I left St. Mary’s by their High Street door, which was a source of Protestant ire during Elizabeth I’s reign, due to the statue of the Virgin Mary, and walked a couple of blocks to the Covered Market, still on the lookout for potential Christmas presents, but also a cup of coffee and a soft chair.
I found both in Gulp Fiction, a used book store that serves coffee.
I am a great fan of mysteries. My attraction to these puzzles of human nature began in childhood (literally nine years old, when I borrowed my mother’s book, Grim Grow the Lilacs) right into the present. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories followed, and it spread from there. I am partial to British mysteries – they tend to have more plot and less violence, even though they almost always involve a murder. Murder is the crime that most urgently compels a solution, after all.
It was in 1988 that “Inspector Morse” was first broadcast – a made-for-TV detective show set in Oxford, based on novels by Colin Dexter.“Morse,” as he was called, was an improbable police detective, having attended Oxford University and developed the requisite tastes: his vintage Jaguar, fine wine and good ale, and, most notably and consistently – opera. His sidekick, because fictional detectives inevitably have one (Miss Marple being an exception,) was Detective Sergeant Lewis, a blue-collar sort of guy who drank whatever was on tap. The series ran for several seasons. They used land-line phones, call boxes, and desktop computers. Inspector Morse ended in 2000. In 2006, a new series appeared: “Lewis,” that featured a now-promoted Chief Inspector Lewis and his sidekick, DS Hathaway, a seminary dropout who had attended Oxford University, now a detective. You know it’s a more recent series because they have cellphones, although not yet smartphones.
Both of these series were filmed in Oxford, and added to the already large mystique of Oxford. Oxford University and the City of Oxford were home to many familiar names: Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien, Oscar Wilde, C.S. Lewis, Stephen Hawking, Dorothy Sayers, Aldous Huxley, Adam Smith, and more – it is a very long list. For a person who enjoys history, literature, and mysteries, Oxford is fertile ground. I decided to include a few extra days to explore Oxford on my way to visit family.
I arrived by train at about 3:00 p.m., Oxford local time, with just enough time, it turned out, to get takeaway from Pret A Manger in the train station and get to Henry’s Bike Shop before dark. Southern England, while mild in climate because of the geography and ocean currents, is still further north than New York City by eleven degrees, resulting in shorter winter days.
The village-scape of Oxford from the train station entry is filled with buildings that have a medieval air about them: grey stone, steep roofs, and a stream wandering through, green grass covering the banks. As I crossed the bridge, the sign told me that it was the Castle Mill Stream, an offshoot of the Thames River.
I pulled my wheeled suitcase from the train station up the hill through the rain toward the central village, to Henry’s Bike Shop on St. Michael’s Street. I had reserved a room at Henry’s Rooms, which are all upstairs (no lift) from Henry’s Bike Shop on the ground floor. I had been emailed a 4-digit code to get into the main door and into my room. After getting my bag upstairs, I used the code on my room door. The door opened to another set of stairs, about half as narrow as the stairs I’d just climbed, but I managed to get my suitcase up it, too.
Once there, the place was very pleasant. I concluded that I had the attic of the old house, but it was now a nicely done modern studio overlooking St. Michael’s Street. Small. Expensive for what it was, but a great location. It was fine for one person or two people, but they had better like each other a lot. There was a tiny galley kitchen area on the stair landing, with a bar sink and a half-sized under-counter fridge. Past the kitchen area was a large-enough wardrobe closet, and a full-sized bathroom with towel warming bars that doubled as a heater, a roomy shower, big mirror, and a spacious shelf for bathroom stuff.
Left turn into the sitting area. It had one comfortable chair, a high table with two bar-height chairs, and a tiny fireplace discovered (per the little green sign) when the owners renovated the building. It had a light in it for “atmosphere,” but it no longer functions as a fireplace. Turn left again, and there was a queen-sized bed with nightstands on either side and a TV hung on the wall. A partial wall on two sides separated the bedroom from the sitting area and stairwell.
I was exhausted and it was dark outside now, so I got myself arranged, turned on the TV and tucked into (I’m in England, after all) my “Protein Box” from Pret. I managed to stay awake until a reasonable time in an effort to adjust my circadian rhythm, but went out with the lights.
I woke up and it was dark. I thought it must be the middle of the night, just an effect of the time change. I tried to sleep some more, but no luck. When I looked at my phone for time, it was 8:12 a.m. Not even eight full hours of daylight.
I was hungry. I dressed, took my camera and umbrella (note the 95% humidity,) descended from my attic to the street, and fell in love with Oxford.
The older parts of villages in the U.K. are utterly charming. Oxford has also restricted motorised vehicles from the central area (except for early morning.) Being in the traffic-free area of central Oxford, St. Michael’s Street was peaceful. Old houses, stores, and cafes lined the short street.
Despite being after nine o’clock now, there weren’t a lot of places open in the area. Henry’s had a small cafe, very small, next to the bike shop, and I saw their three tables were filled as I passed by, so I ventured on. I walked toward the church at the end of the street, and noticed a man sitting on the church steps with a pink blanket over his head and shoulders hunched to keep warm. Even storybook towns have homeless people.
A right turn and a short walk to the next corner brought me to a restaurant that had just opened for the day. It had big windows, lots of large tables, several televisions turned to sports channels, and a bar. I chose a table where I could watch the street life go by. The bartender who took my order guessed I was American (not too hard) and, it turned out, he had spent several years working in Seattle. I didn’t catch what he was working at. But, he seemed to have enjoyed it, and he recognized “Whidbey Island.”
I ordered a full breakfast (hold the black pudding, please) and ate the whole thing: baked beans, two fried eggs over medium, grilled half-tomato, toast, and bacon. Americans would call the “bacon” ham. The English would call our bacon “streaky bacon.” Plus a bowl of porridge (oatmeal) and Earl Grey tea. It would keep me going all day.
While I was eating breakfast, the weather turned from wet to raining, and like other places where it rains a lot, everyone carried an umbrella that they didn’t use unless it was pouring buckets. I poured more hot water in my tea, and sat a few more minutes, hoping the rain would let up.
No such luck. As I stepped onto the sidewalk, I opened my umbrella and looked toward the church. The man in the pink blanket had moved up the steps and into the doorway, out of the rain. I turned up George Street (that became Broad Street in the next block) and walked on, dodging pedestrians with unopened umbrellas.
I window-shopped along the way, finding tourist shops filled with woollen stuff – Harris tweed jackets (from Scotland’s Isle of Harris), cashmere and woollen scarves, and jumpers (pullover sweaters) – and Oxford University stuff – coffee mugs, sweatshirts, t-shirts, key chains, beer steins, and pretty much anything they could fit a logo on – mixed in with book stores, a couple of restaurants, and stores with art supplies.
Outside of a corner shop was a sandwich board sign advertising a walking tour of Oxford. It was sponsored by the City of Oxford, and estimated to be about two hours, guided by an Oxford resident. The rain had stopped and the sun was shining now. As Paddington Bear would say, it seemed like good value, so I signed up on line. A wander through Waterstone’s Bookstore would easily fill the twenty minutes until time to meet the tour.
At the appointed hour, a group gathered at the sandwich board sign on the corner and a woman appeared, looking around expectantly. I didn’t catch her name, but she was very nice, and knowledgeable about Oxford. We were a group of nine. Our guide gave us a brief orientation to Oxford and Oxford University.
Oxford has been around since the 800s, and was called “Ox-ford” because that’s what it was – the shallow place in the Thames River where one could safely “ford” the river, with or without one’s oxen, the British term for cattle. The City of Oxford was not established formally until 1542. As a city, it could control the markets and theatrical performances, which would be a source of revenue. Oxford’s oldest building still standing is the Saxon Tower of St. Michael at the North Gate, built around 1040, the walls themselves dating from about 100 years earlier.
Oxford University was not “founded” as such. There is no anniversary date, or founder that is honoured anywhere in Oxford that I saw. There is evidence that organized teaching was present by 1096, however. By the mid-1200s, there were enough students whose behaviour was frequently so loud and raucous that the citizens of Oxford complained about them, chased students to their quarters, and sometimes threatened physical violence.
The friction between the town citizens and the student community was what brought about the “colleges,” which began as medieval residence halls that were supervised by a “Master.” What we think of in the U.S. as a “college,” a unit focused on a particular area of study, such as business or law, doesn’t exist at Oxford University.
University, Balliol, and Merton Colleges were the earliest, established between 1249 and 1264. The older colleges are scattered throughout central Oxford, and newer ones a little beyond. They retain their function as housing. An economics student, for example, might be housed in any of the colleges in Oxford based on available space rather than subject of study. The colleges were closed for the holidays, so we were only able to get a walk-through the courtyard and ground floor hallway of Corpus Christi later on. College residence rooms are never on any tour, but sometimes one can see the dining hall or chapel belonging to a college.
One of Balliol’s best-known members was former U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson, who was involved in a singular incident, according to our guide. All Oxford colleges participate in an annual tortoise race, usually one tortoise per college. However, one year, which happened to be a year that Johnson was at Balliol, the Balliol tortoise, “Rosa” (after Rosa Parks,) was kidnapped just a couple of days before the race. Balliol’s traditional rival, Trinity College, located right behind Balliol, was deemed responsible for this crime by members of Balliol. Balliol had no evidence to support their accusation. However, Trinity’s claim of innocence was not helped by their presentation of TWO tortoises on race day.
“It all looked very suspicious,” said our guide. Sadly, Rosa was never found, and her fate remains unknown.
Oxford University students were males only, from the 10th century beginnings until the 19th century. In 1878, “academic halls” were established for women, the first two being Lady Margaret Hall and Somerville, but no degrees were conferred on female students (despite passing the same, requisite examinations!) until 1920 when women were admitted as full members. In 1986, the all-male colleges changed their rules to allow admittance of women, but it was not until 2008 that all Oxford colleges actually had admitted both men and women.
Before we walk away from it, the clearly-not-medieval, Gothic, or Renaissance building you see above in the background of the “Wren head,” across Broad Street from the Sheldonian Theater, is quite historical in its own right. Below is a better view of it:
According to our guide, the Normandy Beach invasion of WWII was largely planned – in top secret, of course – on the upper floors of the Weston Library. They were handicapped by having no aerial photographs or maps of the shoreline, so (somehow – she was vague on the details) the British government called for and collected photographs, aerial and land-based, taken by magazines, regular citizens on holiday, and others of the general public, from which they compiled maps suitable for planning the huge invasion. That the public responded and provided so much help strikes me as a very British story. King and country.
The Sheldonian Theatre was the first major work of Sir Christopher Wren, who was also a professor of astronomy at Oxford. It was built to create a ceremonial atmosphere for the awarding of degrees, and it’s still used today for that purpose. It is modelled on a classical Roman theater, rectangular on the front, and semicircular at the back. (Its back is what one sees from Broad Street.)
During the ceremony marking the awarding of degrees, the students who are receiving degrees exit the theater, cross the square to the Divinity School door, and don their new insignia representing their degree, then return to the theater by the same path. Our guide did not specify, but I assumed that the insignia is a “hood” such as American universities use to designate advanced degrees, and worn on ceremonial occasions.
I was almost right. I read later that the academic dress for students means the black robe and a white bow tie, and “colorful hoods” for graduates. Students are required to wear the black robe and white bow tie when they sit for their examinations and when they collect their degrees, but they do not have a hood until awarded. Apparently, some colleges require academic dress when dining in their halls.
The Divinity School was built around 1423, and is an example of English Gothic architecture. I think it is a stunning building with those huge mullioned windows. This was the first building at Oxford that was built for the express purpose of teaching, and it was devoted to “Divinity,” which (I think) means the same subject matter as theology. Divinity was considered the “Queen of the Sciences,” and one earned a degree by passing oral examinations conducted in Latin and Greek.
Duke Humfrey’s Library was not open nor included on the tour when I was there. Duke Humfrey’s Library was the first library of Oxford University, and was the foundation upon which the Bodleian Library was built.
In 1447, Duke Humfrey died, leaving 281 manuscripts to Oxford University, a collection containing translations of classic works that he had commissioned himself, and this prompted the building of a library to house the collection. The library room still exists, where books were chained to the shelves, and the library appears as the Hogwart’s library in the Harry Potter films.
However, the books themselves were not so lucky. During the Reformation (1534 – 1603 in England,) around 1550, the original books that Duke Humfrey had donated were removed from the library by Protestant authorities. All but twenty were destroyed because they were declared tainted by Catholic doctrines.
As a result, Oxford University was without a library until 1598, when Sir Thomas Bodley, a fellow of Merton College, retired from his diplomatic career and came to Oxford. Re-establishing a library became his retirement project, and he contributed money to refurbish and add on to the library, as well as purchasing books. His “modern” ideas included not chaining the books to the shelves, but placing them on shelves that could be monitored. Books were still rare and expensive, but Sir Thomas believed they should be more accessible, as he had seen in the Spanish king’s library. With all of his work and financial support, it is not surprising that it became the “Bodleian Library” in 1602.
Sir Thomas did something else that was of great importance to Oxford’s new library. In 1610, Bodley made an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London that would provide a copy of each and every book published in the United Kingdom to Oxford’s library. The Bodleian Library was the first of six “legal deposit” libraries, now housing over 12 million items.
The Bodleian Library is not a lending library. No one, not even King Charles I nor any other royal, was allowed to borrow a book. Users must be physically present, and must swear Bodley’s Oath not to bring fire or flames into the library. No artificial lighting (including candles) was allowed in the library until 1929.
All of the libraries at Oxford University are part of the Bodleian Library system now. Their names distinguish them individually, such as the Weston Library or the Radcliffe Camera, but they are connected by tunnels underground and by administrative authority. Our tour group walked from the Divinity School lobby to the Radcliffe Camera (pictured below,) through the tunnel known as the “Gladstone Link.”
The highest statue on the front of Oriel College is of Cecil John Rhodes, 1853-1902. The former African country of Rhodesia was named for him, as is the well-known Rhodes Scholarship program that brings scholars from all over the world to study at Oxford. Rhodesia became two modern African countries – Zimbabwe and Zambia – which is where I had learned his history. This Oriel College building was constructed 1909-11, and the Rhodes Scholarship Trust established, with money given by Rhodes, who was a student at Oriel College in his youth. The statue, however, has become the focus of public debates because Rhodes got his fortune by exploiting southern Africa’s minerals, land, and people. Rhodes attracted criticism in his day (and ever since,) including currently in Africa. Oriel College formally requested removal of the statue, but it remains by advice of legal representatives. Debate continues.
The “Pelican in Piety” catches the eye when first entering the courtyard. The gilded pelican, perched on top of the stone pillar, is shown plucking at her breast. In medieval times, it was believed that a mother pelican fed her young with her own blood, drawn from her breast by plucking at it. The pelican became a Christian symbol of self-sacrifice and the sacrament of Holy Communion.
The Pelican Sundial was built in 1581, sometimes called the Turnbull Sundial after its builder, Charles Turnbull. It has twenty-four different dials, with signs of the zodiac, phases of the moon, a hollow framework of rings representing the planets orbiting the Earth, and the golden pelican perched at the top of the sphere.
Corpus Christi College was founded in 1517 by the Bishop of Winchester, Richard Fox, who held a number of other church offices as well as being an advisor to kings. Although first conceived as a training college for monks from St. Swithuns Priory at Winchester, it gradually broadened in purpose, evolving into a place of Renaissance learning, a place to educate young men in the humanities and sciences for service to the church and state, according the the college’s historical notes. It was built on the site of several medieval Oxford academic halls, just inside the city walls. These had fallen out of use and into disrepair due to outbreaks of the plague during the 1400s.
Our guide took us through a smaller courtyard of Corpus Christi, past the chapel, through a hallway past the dining hall, and back to the front gate to exit. We walked along King Edward Street to High Street again, and turned toward the Covered Market.
We exited the Covered Market at the intersection of Market Street and Turl Street. Our tour was at its end, and she asked if there were any questions. I felt the tour had been “good value,” indeed. When I asked about tea, she pointed me in the direction of the Grande Cafe on High Street, a good suggestion.
I looked at my map over tea, plotted my route back to Henry’s Bike Shop, and enjoyed the walk in the waning light. Plans for the next day included some shopping and visits to some other spots in Oxford.