After four months in South America, I had grown accustomed to life on the road as well as the process of traveling in less advanced countries. As I touched down in London, I had no idea what to expect and walked through immigration at Heathrow airport with an open mind. Within the first day in London, I fell in love. The bustle of the city, the style and décor of the homes in Kensington – the neighborhood we called home for a week, and the history immersed throughout the town caught me off guard. I was immediately aware of the fact that my brief time in London would just be the tip of the iceberg and that I had to return to fully enjoy and understand this remarkable city. This was my first time in the UK and I gave insufficient weight to how much the culture of England shaped the United States. You could feel it in the advertising, architecture, pace of life, and general demeanor of the people in the city among innumerable other things.
London itself and particularly the neighborhood we stayed in is a finance hub in Europe and the amount of money walking around town quickly jaded me. By the time I left I convinced myself that Bentleys must be significantly cheaper here, simply an average luxury sedan, as that could be the only explanation for the sheer volume of them on the street. The uniformity of color and architecture in the Kensington neighborhood was particularly charming to me. White houses with black trim and greenery throughout, the timeless style lends no clue to the era in time you are inhabiting – it is only betrayed by the power lines, satellite dishes, and passersby pouring over a message on their iPhone.
Our first few days in England were spent walking the town and enjoying the city parks. I had not realized how devoted the English were to their public parks and was incredibly impressed by the vast stretches of Hyde Park and in a more modest way, the numerous green spaces that popped up every few blocks. I was expecting London to in many ways be like Manhattan- the embodiment of urban density with the rush of humanity sweeping you up like a current. While a metropolis, the density was much less intense and the green of the city served to soften its edges immensely.
We spent a good amount of time window shopping at Harrods as well. The American culture was pretty evident here in exploring this ultra luxury department store where you could buy almost any good, accessory, food, or clothing item under the sun. It was like the fanciest mall in the world stacked into a high rise and it seemed like the sections were endless. I immensely enjoyed the food court which served everything from cornish game hen and steak, to sushi and caviar. I will forever think of Harrods when I think of London.
After the first two nights, friends started to roll into town. Mandy’s best friend Rachel and her fiancée Brandon were getting married the next week in Wick, Scotland. Many guests attending the wedding decided to spend time in England and Scotland prior to the festivities. We had just left Phoenix and it was so much more special to be able to explore a new place with close friends, especially at the beginning of our European leg. A lot of a travel experience is seeing a place through the eyes of those around you and being able to do so with people you are close to enhances the time spent immeasurably. This is especially true on the front end of a long trip because it sets the tone for the rest of the trip. I can assuredly say that the tone set was one with a lot of fun, laughs, drinks, and inside jokes. Life isn’t what you do but who you send time with and I couldn’t have picked a better group of people to fill that role.
We saw a few of the sights including the London Eye, and Buckingham Palace as well as the Victoria and Albert Museum. The level of history surrounding this city and Britain is so vast and complex that it would take volumes to properly explain and contextualize the current position of the city and nation. In some ways, to understand London and England, is to know most of modern history spanning from the Roman Empire through today. Suffice it to say, being among that much history inspired my interest in better understanding pre-1900’s Europe which I have a lot to learn about.
We spent our last few days in London going on different day trips outside of town. Our first excursion was to iconic Stonehenge. Located a few hours’ drive outside of London, Stonehenge consists of standing stones, each around thirteen feet high, six feet wide, and weighing approximately 25 tons. They are arranged in a circle and were made as is widely believed for religious purposes. Most astounding is the movement of these gigantic stones with the earliest portions of the monument dating back as many as 5,000 years ago. It is still a mystery as to how these stones were transported, but as seen on Easter Island, an organized culture and religion can do some astounding things. What is striking to me, is the fact that people have been organized and living in a civilized way here for that long of a period of time. So many different factions have risen and fell in such a small area over an immensely long period of time. What is equally interesting is how many distinct groups and identities remain in England, even to this day. Despite the countless conquerors from abroad and local groups dominating one another, distinct cultures still exist here today and understanding those different groups helps you fully understand the richness of the national identity.
We spent another full day out in the English countryside exploring Bath and the Cotswolds. Thanks to the breed of sheep known as the Cotswold Lion, this area of England became incredibly prosperous during the Middle Ages. The name Cotswold is attributed to the meaning "sheep enclosure in rolling hillsides", incorporating the term “wold” meaning hills.
During the middle ages, wool was inordinately expensive throughout Europe and as a result large sums of money flowed into the area over a short period of time. The wealth in the Cotswolds was largely invested in the Churches as the wealthy Wool Farmers and merchants wanted to curry favor with God. To this day, many large stone churches dot the area and are known as “wool churches.” Later on, the price of wool plummeted and a once prosperous area had its primary source of income taken away. As a result, no further investment was made to the area in many generations and as a result, the area possesses the old world charm that we see it for today. In present times, many wealthy Londoners have acquired country homes in this area and it has resulted in a revitalization to the area and a restoration of many estates that had fallen into disrepair.
The Cotswold’s were designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) which provides for the preservation of the area and draws national distinction to the region. Many of the “Period” films we all know and love of Victorian England were in fact filmed in this area as well. The region inspires the imagination and takes your mind back to another era in England’s history.
We finished our outside London excursions with a visit to the city of Bath. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Bath houses a temple built by the Roman Empire and the natural hot springs flow into and through the temple. This archaeological site was lost for hundreds of years and rediscovered in the 16th century. The English nobility at the time claimed that the water from the natural springs had curative properties and the city quickly grew in prominence as a spa town amongst the wealthy and powerful. The noblemen would drink up to eight glasses of the sulphur flavored water in an attempt to cure any myriad of ailments. The city was once called home and written about by Jane Austen and is now a major city and center for tourism seeing almost four million visitors annually. We had the opportunity to walk the city for a few hours and tour the ancient Roman temple.
England for me helped contextualize my own culture and identity as an American. I saw many parallels to American beliefs, ideals, and value systems. While this should be obvious to most, I think there is a difference between understanding something in principle and feeling a parallel for yourself. The history of the United States is short relative to the history of modern society and my first few weeks in Europe provided me with a longer view of where my own culture and world view originated. In my past travels, I have marveled at the differences I have learned about language, culture, history in other societies but in this case, my greatest lessons come from reflecting on palpable similarities. // Jeff