As I write this, it’s November 5, and it’s raining. These two things together make me think of England. I spent ten weeks in Britain in college, on a school literary trip abroad with twenty-odd other students, chaperoned by our literature professor and his wife. The purpose was to put us inside the literature we studied by taking us to many of the sites where famous authors had lived and written.
One of our first activities was a Charles Dickens walking tour of London, led by a little bird-like woman with a long white-streaked black braid who was rather like a Dickens character herself. We all chuckled inwardly when this middle-aged lady, barely five feet tall, told us, “We have a lot of places to see and I can’t be waiting up for you, so keep up, please.” Then she took off, and no one had breath left to chuckle. She towed us all over London at such a good clip that even Scott and Forrest, both experienced hikers over six feet tall, had to work to keep up. Along the way, she narrated episodes from Dickens’s life. Parts of London haven’t changed much physically since Dickens’s time–the same buildings are still there, and the bumpy cobblestone streets–so it was easy to imagine Pip, David Copperfield, or Bob Cratchit hurrying through this bustling city, perhaps struggling to keep up with our guide.
Later, on my own, I explored the city and visited my first gay bookstore, Gay’s the Word (that’s how they answered the phone, too). The shopkeeper was quietly friendly, letting me peruse the bookcases filled with classics. The selection made me curious. What was Arthur Conan Doyle doing here? Why the antique copy of Peter Pan in the glass case? But I asked no questions, instead buying a little book of Oscar Wilde poems and a journal with Wilde on the front. I went back to the hotel feeling that I, a rural kid going to a Christian college, had just had a supremely mind-opening experience.
Not all my experiences in England were what I would have wished or hoped for. Our visit to Oxford was short, and my main impression was of dizzying Gothic spires and forbidding gargoyles at Oxford University. We passed the Eagle and Child pub, where J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the other Inklings shared their writing with each other, but we did not go in. Lewis was considered important enough to discuss on the Oxford tour; Tolkien, my favorite author , wasn’t. Later, when I visited Sherwood Forest, I was disappointed to find it is now the size of a small park; no mighty trees are left, and there is nowhere for Robin Hood and his merry men to hide.
In contrast, Shakespeare’s presence is easy to feel in his hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon. We were there during the height of theater season, and we attended a play every night. At Shakespeare’s grave, you can get a chill from his epitaph, which blesses those who read his words and contains a curse upon anyone who would disturb his bones. We visited Shakespeare’s mother’s farmhouse and his wife Anne Hathaway’s home, where we got in trouble with the gardeners for holding an apple-throwing contest in the orchard. “Stupid Americans think everything’s a bloody playground!” We could not, however, visit Shakespeare’s house, as it no longer exists. At some point, a frustrated owner, disgusted with tourists continually gawking at them in their home, tore it down. We had to be content with strolling through Shakespeare’s garden.
Later, I returned there for some rare and precious time alone. I sat under a mulberry tree said to be a scion of Shakespeare’s mulberry tree and wrote part of a story on a cheap notepad. A tour group came through, and I heard the guide’s running commentary: “This is Shakespeare’s garden, and that’s Shakespeare’s mulberry tree, and look! There’s a real writer!” Seventeen years later, that remains one of the proudest moments of my life.
November 5, Guy Fawkes Day, was my last day in England. My host family took me to a Guy Fawkes Day party, where, true to tradition, a straw man was burned in effigy and fireworks went off to celebrate how Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament was thwarted. It was cold and grey, much like today. My hosts convinced me to drink mulled wine, the first alcohol I’d ever tasted. It tasted terrible, but it was the only hot thing available to drink. I stood next to the bonfire, sipping hot, bitter wine and getting rained on, and promised myself I’d come back to England someday. I haven’t been back yet, but there are plenty of things I want to do if I ever return. Just for starters, I’d like to see if Gay’s the Word has survived, have a pint at the Eagle and Child, and sit under Shakespeare’s mulberry tree and write another story about the same characters I was writing about then, who have stayed with me all this time, just like my memory of England.
Amanda MacNaughton majored in literature in college. She turned 20 in Scotland, on the formative trip this article is about, but that’s another story. She wants you to know that she’s making excellent use of her degree, working in her field selling books at Paulina Springs Books in Sisters and Redmond.