British escape, part II: Stratford-upon-Avon and York

This is my second post featuring a recent trip abroad. For the first part, visit here.

Waking up early in London, I was well aware that the trip was shaping up to be as much of a death march as previous “vacations” — but that’s okay. For my family, trips are opportunities to see exotic places, learn about new cultures and always, always, always keep moving. We’re not really good at “down time,” and we don’t see the point in “vegging out.”

These are all nasty words to us.

Still, prying my jetlagged eyes open at 4 a.m. for a 5 a.m. breakfast time was its own unique brand of torture. I’m notorious for waking up a half hour before I need to be out the door, and rooming with my sister — also a lover of sleep — was a little scary. I set two alarm clocks to make sure we didn’t oversleep.

And then it was off to Stratford-upon-Avon, our first “official” stop as part of our Trafalgar tour. We met our wonderful tour guide, Steve, a retired teacher originally from Wales, and he introduced us to the rest of our 51-member group for the next week or so. Traveling in a large group has advantages and disadvantages, of course; all traveling does. But one funny thing about being a part of a tour group is that you all wander into the hotel lobby as strangers but eventually part as friends. At the conclusion of our trip, I can honestly say I got to know — and like — many people on our “coach,” and my horizons? Expanded.

But I digress.

Stratford-upon-Avon is the birthplace of William Shakespeare, famous playwright and poet — and someone I’ve studied extensively. Just outside of town is a cottage that was the childhood home of Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife. After traversing winding roads and getting my first real glimpse of the English countryside, we arrived at the cottage and had a group photo taken. I took to the gardens like a moth to a flame, capturing the buds from every angle. I also got my first taste of the tour’s unofficial theme: go, go, go.

We never stopped moving.

It was absolutely beautiful, though. Set in a lush garden with visitors flocking to photograph every window and thatched roof, I immediately fell in love with the idyllic setting and wished I could just collapse amid the flowers with a book. It was off to the city centre, though, where we had lunch and saw the exterior of the building in which Shakespeare himself was born.

And it was quite the popular place.

“If you think this is bad,” Steve said, “trust me, it’s not. Just wait a few months. July. August. Then it’s bad — the crowds are three times as large.”

That’s hard for me to believe, I thought, looking up from my tuna panini at the swarms of high school students waiting to enter the Shakespeare Centre. People seemed to be everywhere: ducking in the souvenir shops and books carrying tomes of the Bard’s work; clothing stores with wool sweaters and postcards. Waiting in line for food, coffee, icecream (99 Flake!). The center of town was alive with tourists and locals alike, all meshed together and chatting under a lovely blue sky.

I wondered if Stratford-upon-Avon is a school prerequisite in England; if they visit Shakespeare’s birthplace the way that every student in my elementary school took a short ride to the White House in second grade. Washington, D.C. is nothing different or spectacular for children where I live; everyone has been there or has a parent (or two) that work there. Has Stratford lost its appeal for British children? Is it just another spot to cross off the list — a destination worthy of a field trip and not much more?

I hope not. It was really cool.

After grabbing lunch and popping into a few shops, we left the town for York, a lovely medieval town a few hours away. Steve escorted us through busy streets teeming with shoppers to see the remnants of an incredibly old structure (sorry, Steve, but I’ve already forgotten what this is!) and spend some time walking through town. It was there that I found my beloved clotted cream fudge — a delicacy I’d never heard of nor experienced until that afternoon — and I whiled away the rest of the afternoon while stuffing my face full of candy.

It was awesome.

York was very beautiful and impressive — a modern town wedged into a historic one, a place that seems to embody what I imagined “medieval” England to be. York Minster — the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe — seems to loom up from out of the imagination, too gigantic and amazing to be real. We poked our heads in just as a service was beginning, taking in the powerful organs and artifacts on display.

There’s something about being in a cathedral that makes you feel closer to God somehow . . . maybe that’s wrong to say aloud, but it’s true. The way I feel about religion and Christ and the powers that be is completely different inside an enormous structure with high ceilings, stained glass and choirs than in the tiny churches we have at home. It’s just easier to . . . feel something there.

Part of that is probably because I was traveling, too. I always feel like a different person — maybe a better person — when I’m on a journey.

Maybe travel is my religion.

Maybe many things are.

On the steps of York Minster, we listened to a street performer playing hymns on an electronic keyboard while waiting for the rest of our tour group to find their way back to us. Fifty people strong, we were an impressive crowd as the sun was setting — this group of strangers who had traveled thousands of miles to arrive in one spot together.

Our first official tour day ended in Leeds, where we enjoyed dinner at the hotel before crashing early. The next day was already catching up to us quick. We would be heading to Grasmere and the Lake District, a place I’d been dying to see since Jane Austen inspired Lake District lust in me, and I needed sleep to stay awake on our journey through the countryside the following day.

I dozed off with dreams of clotted cream fudge in my head, threatening to give me sweet and delicious nightmares forever.

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18 thoughts on “British escape, part II: Stratford-upon-Avon and York

  1. Oh yes, that fudge! I can eat loads of it, it never gets boring.

    As I said before, I used to live in York and it was nice to see some pictures here. I guess you didn’t have time to walk the city walls? That’s quite fun to do. The railway station is impressive too, very old with lots of arches.

    I’ve been to Stratford once but I didn’t go visit The Bard’s house (just from the outside – I think the queues were too long). Looking forward to you Lake District story. Yes, I’ve been there too. 🙂

  2. I love Stratford, I went there as a child and it’s one of the few trips that really stayed in my mind, it is just so lovely there. It looks like it’s changed a lot since, though. Look forward to your photos of the Lake District!

  3. I absolutely become entranced by old European architecture. I can almost imagine myself back in time as I walk on the same cobblestones that they did two or three or more hundred years ago. I’m not a student of Shakespeare but of course I would still have to visit if I were in the neighborhood. Awesome update! Keep em coming!

  4. I’ve always wanted to go to Stratford-upon-avon and The Shakespeare Center. *Sigh* Hopefully one day soon. It looks incredible. I am also intrigued by this fudge. I’ve never heard of it, but it sound delicious. I can’t wait to read your write-up of The Lake District. I remember learning so much about it when I studied the Romantic poets in college. I can’t wait to see your pictures, too! I know what you mean about always moving and no down time on tours. I felt the same way in Italy. I felt like I needed a vacation after my vacation, but it was so worth it! Great post, Meg!

  5. Let me know if your clotted cream fudge urges get the better of you and I will send some out to you.

    You are right about Shakespeare. I think our children are a bit zoned out by them.

  6. oh i love all the gorgeous pictures you took! leeds, eh? my brother is a fan of their soccer team–only because his co worker stops about them nonstop (he’s originally from england).

  7. I love both these places. York is my favorite city of all time and I plan to move back there with my next job, fingers all crossed. I completely agree with you about cathedrals. I’m not religious – at all – but there is something about a building that is so grand and has held so many worshippers.

    And Stratford upon Avon is even cool for Brits – my boss and I went there for work a couple months ago and he’d never been. He still thought it was pretty awesome.

  8. This makes me remember my wonderful study abroad time in college where I was in London and we took a few days in Stratford and visited all of these places. So wonderful!

  9. Oh my, I so absolutely want to visit York Minster one day. “Too gigantic and amazing to be real” was how I felt visiting Notre-Dame de Paris, and I can only imagine what your visit of York must have been like, what with the service and the organ playing! That picture of it peeking out between the street’s buildings is amazing. I can’t help but think of what an impression it must have made when it was constructed…

  10. Oh boy. Lately I have definitely caught British fever and reading about your adventures in the UK have been truly delightful. I’m so glad that you shared some of your travel stories. I love hearing about your escapades across the pond.

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