18 January 2011

Edinburgh Castle

This afternoon we meet as a group at Edinburgh Castle to explore the grounds and learn of its historical use and how it is used today. It was very sunny, but bitterly cold and a bit windy. We were able to see the coronation stone which we heard about while we were in London at Westminster Abbey. The crown jewels of Scotland, the birthing room where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI, and the Scottish War Memorial were a few of the highlights we were able to see and learn more about. The sunset was absolutely amazing to see as we left the Castle grounds and headed down High Street to our hostel.

We ate dinner as a group, using the kitchen in our hostel. Over dinner we discussed our days and shared some cultural experiences.

First day in Edinburgh: Mary King's Close

Some highlights of the day:

Breakfast at the hostel includes haggis, and many of our group tasted it for the first time. Some of us have had haggis that's far less palatable, but it was clear that not everyone was going to continue including it on their breakfast buffet menu.

After some exploring of the vicinity, most of us struck off for Arthur's Seat for a climb to the top. It was very windy and our route (which, it turns out, was the long way) was wet and muddy. But we found that the ascent up one of the peaks is made of stone steps, and we started up.

Climbing Arthur's Seat, 14 January 2011. Click to enlarge.

Some students made it within sight of the summit, but we all had to turn back, not due to exhaustion or terror (the wind seemed strong enough to blow a person right off the mountain) but because we were running out of time. We enjoyed striking vistas of all of Edinburgh and generally had a very good time.

Views from Arthur's Seat, 14 January 2011. Click to enlarge.

We had a 4 p.m. appointment for a tour of The Real Mary King's Close, a historical tour of a close (a very narrow street lined with buildings) that dates to the 17th century and that was in use into the 1930's. The close and the associated buildings are now many meters below street level, so the tour is a subterranean adventure. Our guide was in character as Mary King's daughter, and she included references to some of the ghost stories associated with the close. One of her deliberate attempts to scare us (she struck the wood floor with a rod as we sat in the dark listening to a recorded story) elicited at least one delightfully loud scream from one of the group. More importantly, we learned a lot about the structure of crowded Edinburgh in the 17th and 18th centuries; the 14-story buildings that lined the close at the lake's edge are thought to be among the world's tallest at the time. We learned what it means when someone yells "Gardyloo!" Blecch. And we heard about how Edinburgh beat the Plague (on the 12th try or so). We weren't sure whether we should believe the claim that 2% of the coffins from that time really have scratches inside of them, despite the somewhat credible explanation: that the gents collecting corpses were paid in ale and thus so inebriated that they occasionally picked up people who were "taking a nap" by accident.

In the evening, we had our first communal meal, prepared by us in the hostel kitchen at a fraction of the cost of Pizza Hut.

13 January 2011

En route to Edinburgh

We're on the train from London King's Cross to Edinburgh. (Fifteen minutes of free WiFi!) Having passed through York and Durham, we recently left Newcastle and are a little more than an hour from Edinburgh, in sight of the sea. Here are some photos of Newcastle as we pulled into the station. Next update from Edinburgh this evening.

Newcastle Upon Tyne, 13 January 2011, around 1400 GMT. Pulling into the station (left) and the platform (right). Click to enlarge.

12 January 2011

Day 2: Westminster Abbey

Our first major event of the course was a visit to Westminster Abbey. Part royal church, part national memorial, and site of the historic Westminster Assembly, a focus of our studies. Our excellent lecturer/guide, Ian Godfrey, took us to the Jerusalem Chamber, a part of the abbey where the abbott used to live and work and where the Deanery of the Abbey still meets. (This was a special gift to us; the room is not open to the public.) The chamber is a cozy meeting room built in the 14th century. The ceiling is original and beautiful, with alternating imprints of the insignia of the abbott (Nicholas Litlyngton) and monarch (Richard II) at the time.  The fireplace is also original, and is the spot at which King Henry IV died, as related (colorfully) by the Bard.

On the way to Westminster Abbey, in the background. Click to enlarge.

More relevant to our objectives are the meetings of various historic religious committees, including the groups that prepared four different versions of the Bible: the Authorized Version (aka the King James Version), the Revised Version of 1870, the New English Bible of 1961 and the Revised English Bible of 1989. And, in 1643, the Westminster Assembly met in the room, as they began work that culminated in the writing of some of the great documents of Reformed Christianity: the Westminster Confession and the Westminster Catechisms.

We had an enjoyable tour of the rest of the Abbey, learning about its unique status as a church (as a Royal Peculiar) and its heritage, then visiting the many famous graves and memorials throughout. (Ian estimated that there are 3300 memorials or graves in the Abbey, and he should know: he wrote a little book, sold in the Abbey gift store, called "Who's Buried Where" that can help the curious locate their favorite graves.)

The rest of the day we scattered to various locales: some visited Buckingham Palace, others the Tate Britain.

In the evening, while exploring the West End theater district, some of us came upon a very interesting sight: a man standing in an intersection, wearing a bright yellow vest you might see on a traffic officer. This seemed unremarkable at first, until we noticed he held a sign. It read, roughly, "You are being filmed." Then we noticed his interesting mask, made famous in the film V For Vendetta. Students in the group immediately got the connection and explained it to those of us who haven't seen the movie: the mask is a Guy Fawkes mask, a symbol of (loosely speaking) protest and/or anarchy. Anyway, we soon saw the target of the protest, a small government car bearing a large CCTV camera. (For what purpose, we don't know.) As the car started to move, the protester got on his motorcycle and followed, presumably to resume the protest (and warning) at the next stop. We all enjoyed this irony: people busily photographed him.

Not the guy we saw, but you get the picture. Heh. Original image here.

Day 6: Free Day

Today was our free day, and we all went on various trips. We all started out going to buy tickets for a West End show tonight. Ben, Melissa, and Heather went off to the Globe afterwards. It was really neat to see the place where many of Shakespeare's plays were put on, and where many plays still occur. The theater itself does not have a bad seat in it, and it is amazing to see how well sound travels in the building even though there is an open roof. After touring the Globe, we went off to Tate Modern (a modern art museum). We walked around and try to come up with meanings to the works of art that we came across. One of our favorite pieces is one that has a statue of Venus with a pile of clothing in front of her. We had a lot of fun coming up with meanings to that piece. After dinner we went off to see Phantom of the Opera, and the rest of the group went to see Les Miserables. Phantom was excellent! I am really glad that we had the time to see such a great musical while here.

10 January 2011

Day 4: St. Paul's Cathedral

We had a wonderful tour of St. Paul's led by a guide named Brian. After exploring the church and its history (and the crypt and its permanent residents) we had a lunch at the Crypt Cafe. (Sounds like a marketing, glitch, I know.)

Then we prepared for our ascent up the dome. Three stages: one to the Whispering Gallery, the next to the Stone Gallery and its panoramic view of London, then the final climb to the Golden Gallery, far higher up the dome and also outside, a total of 528 steps above the main floor of the cathedral. At the Stone Gallery, an experienced attendant took our first class picture, at his "favorite spot." Now we see why. Click to enlarge.

09 January 2011

Day 3: The Bloody Tower

We started off this Sunny Sunday strolling down Victoria St. on our way to Westminster Abbey for church. The service and the atmosphere of the cathedral were wonderful, and the organ was amazing to listen to. After the service a group of us hopped on the tube and traveled to the Tower of London. There we were led on a tour by a Yeoman Warder aka a Beef Eater (look up Beef Eater Gin). He led us around the tower showing us Traitor's Gate, the bell tower, the White tower, and the lawn on which the executions of King Henry VIII's wives happened. After the extermely informative tour, we all went and saw the crown jewels (which are decorated in flawless diamonds and stones). Other exihibits included armour worn by the Kings, the torture chamber, the bedroom and office of the king, and walking along the wall. We then walked across part of the Tower Bridge, and made our way back to the hostel for the night.