Thursday, 31 March 2011

The Coming of Spring, or Why it Wouldn't be Forks.

fter you've been in Britain for more than a week or so you begin to realise that, to the British, weather is really, really important. It's a different kind of importance in comparison with those who wake up each morning prepared to toil in life threatening temperatures, but I'm sure our entire civilisation is built on the famous British weather! Instead of saying 'hi, how're you?' if you meet someone in the street it's far more common to say "lovely weather" with a sarcastic roll of the eyes at the overhanging clouds, or "enjoy it while it lasts" on days that are sunny.


Now, when I was in America on those few days in the Summer months when it rained, it was like the day was cancelled: "that's it, everyone inside, close your blinds and pretend it's night time already". Not so in England: here you just have to grab your trusty umbrella (which you probably don't have on you, as it's raining and that's sod's law) and get on with it: bad weather can't stop the British! Similarly for cloudy days: I will always maintain that the main problem with the Twilight books (appart from the appalling... well, don't wish to offend any fans!) is the fact that the main vamp family in those books move to live in an overcast town in America to escape the sun; clearly you'd just move to the UK is that was your aim!

Harlaxton Drive

If there's one thing to be said for the British weather, the ever-changing cover does make for dramatic pictures...


Any that on those rare sunny days, we flock to the beach as fast as we can to lie spreadeagled in a patch of sunlight no warmer than the average Spring day in Evansville! Quick everyone, absorb Vitamin D!

Skegness Beach

Because of this ever changing weather it may be more obvious why we celebrate the arrival of Spring with maypole dancing, lambs, daffodils, giant chocolate eggs and all that good stuff: you've got to celebrate leaving the cold, wet weather behind you and embrace the onrushing Summer, at least until it hits 80 degrees farenheit and we all start dying from the heat... A maypole dance (shown below) is more typically danced on May Day (May 1st) but for us is takes place on the Spring Equinox: typically for England it was raining so this dance took place indoors! The ribbons are wrapped around the pole in different patterns, depending on the style of dance.

So yes, potential students, the weather is British. It will be cloudy, sunny, rainy and everything in between, pretty much all the time you're here, whenever you come. Bring a warm coat and a pair of shorts because you'll never know when you'll need them. One thing's for sure, you'll never complain about American weather again!

"Here's to the Great British Summer:
Music festival-ing, mixed mud wrestling,
14 degrees, knobbly knees,
Catching the rays,
The Big Squeeze,
Traffic jams, handheld fans,
'The hottest day since records began'
Yes, we'll complain it's too hot,
We'll moan when there's showers,
But it's glorious, lovable, eccentric, magnificent...
...and ours."

Monday, 28 March 2011

London's Museums=A History Lover's Dream Come True

As a History major, museums are my idea of a good time.  And London is where my favorite museums lie.  Deciding to take a trip to London one day by myself was the best idea ever!  I didn't have to feel bad about dragging friends to places they didn't really want to go and I got to spend as much time as I wanted in each museum!  I had already been to the British Museum on a previous trip, although I was too early to see the special Afghanistan exhibit, which would have been awesome.  This museum is a definite must see, particularly if you love ancient stuff, they took all this awesome, important stuff from all over the empire and put it in a building for everyone to see.  It's also free, which is a definite plus!

The Tower of London is absolutely amazing.  You do have to pay to get in, but, like most places, you get a concession by showing your student card, which definitely brings down the price.  I love Tudor history, and since that's where the Tower gets its grizzly history from, I was in heaven!  There were tours going on, but they were so big that I just spent hours upon hours wandering around the castle on my own.  There was everything!  You could walk along the walls and get great views of Tower Bridge, walk through reproductions of King Edward's rooms, see the torture devices, read all the engravings by prisoners, see all this fancy weaponry and gifts from around the world (including an eagle headdress from one of the Plains Indians tribes, randomly), various king's suits of armour (including 3 of Henry VIII), and the grounds in general.  There was so much to explore!

While I was able to contain my excitement at the Tower of London, all that self-restraint flew out the window when I got to the Imperial War Museum: my all-time favorite museum, not just in London, but everywhere I've been!  I walk up to it and see this massive gun with these shells that come up to my shoulders.  Then I walk inside and see a room full of tanks and guns and vehicles and airplanes and I started to get really excited.  By the time I found out that literally half of the museum was World War I and II, I was like a kid in a candy shop!  I am absolutely fascinated by the World Wars and I was running around the rooms, taking pictures and saying, "I know about that!  I remember reading about this!".  I know some people were looking at me oddly every once in awhile when I got particularly excited about something (like the Hitler Youth uniform or the Lusitania life-ring), but I honestly didn't care.  If I thought the day couldn't get any better, I was wrong, because there was also an entire exhibit on Bernard Montgomery!  I had just written a paper on him and it was so cool to see all of his orders and awards and stuff.  I may not have liked the guy if I met him, but I admire his tactics on the battlefield and what he did during WWII.

Historical museums aren't the only ones in London worth mentioning, however (though they are the best).  I finished off my day at 221B Baker Street, at the Sherlock Holmes Museum.  There's nothing better than ending your day by meeting Sherlock Holmes and seeing his and Watson's rooms!  Definitely worth the little wait I had.  Plus they have this awesome shop right next-door where you can buy all of this awesome Sherlock Holmes stuff!  I restrained myself from buying the pipe and chess set and letter opener and signs and...the list goes on.  I did buy this really cute Sherlock Holmes bear though!  He's adorable!

Gotta love that London is just over an hour away from Grantham, with so much awesome stuff to see and do!

Monday, 21 March 2011

Art in Modern Britain

On the recent British Studies field trip I tagged along, mainly because a trip to London seemed like it would offer more opportunities for interesting blog posts than staying in drizzly Grantham! After a bus breaking down and a hilarious game of 'drive away whilst a student trys to get on' we were on our way: my plan was to get to London, meet up with artistic friends, and DO SOME CULTURE.

First Stop: Tate Modern. Now I've got to admit, of the two Tate's in London... this is my least favourite. Modern Art is something I generally need someone to explain to me, to make me understand why it's not just a canvas painted blue. Enter Rebecca, a friend of mine studying at Wimbledon College of Art! She and I have been friends since we were 11 (eep I feel really old now) and she was actually the Ridgway Scholar three years before me, so we have a lot in common. I was definitely excited to see Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's ceramic Sunflower seeds and also very tempted to leap over the barrier in a dramatic flourish and run through them, but you're not allowed to as the ceramic dust is too dangerous?! I was part way through planning "Operation Chewing Gum on Shoes" (designed to cunningly steal a few seeds) but sadly the guards were a bit too good at their jobs and so I had to leave.

Rebecca wanted to go and see British Art Show 7 which catalogues the best of up-and-coming British art from the last five years. One of the artists, Charles Avery, has created a fictional world for his 'Islanders', people who have colonised a strange island full of creatures such as the 'platypus-billed duck' and who can't escape their obsession with eggs pickled in gin. Now, I know that all sounds a bit mad but I promise you, his drawings of the town were amazing, full of detail (and random eggs!). You can read more about his work here (the drawing below is from that article).

One of the more disturbing pieces was in a darkened room: a mechanical face with rolling eyes and a moving jaw, with a tube in the mouth that randomly excretes papery-gluey gunk into a bucket with audible 'plops'. It was truly horrible, and was there to draw you to the artists short film, in which a man who eats books appears to be living in a disfunctional families house without them realising. I can't really describe it, beyond saying that it was massively disturbing to watch the film with a randomise 'plopping' happening in the background. Maybe you should hear about it from an expert instead of a grossed out amateur! I was sad to see that one of the performance artists was missing: from the poster his work seems to be focused on him sitting on a bench naked, and occassionally setting fire to it? As Adrian Searle puts it, "maybe the youth decided that starting a fire was less effort than putting some clothes on".

So you see, art in Britain is not limited to fusty Rembrandts, or pickled cows, or even something I create every single day: the Un-Made Bed. London is a fantastic city for modern art as well as the Natinal Gallery experience the students had on this trip to London: if you've got an open mind then it's well worth exploring!

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Life in the Manor: Let The Sun Shine In (Or Not.)

If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far during my time at Harlaxton, I’ve learned to hate sunny days.

You read that correctly. I hate sunny days. It’s absolute torture to look out my window in the manor, look over the sculpted towers, always-green fields and mossy woods and see the sun shining brightly. Because then I have to sigh, crack open my British Studies textbook or head down to one of the State Rooms for class where the enormous windows will continue to taunt me with views of the gorgeous British countryside.

It’s a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.

The reason I’m constantly tortured is that one of my favorite things about living here at Harlaxton for the semester is what lies beyond those windows. Don’t get me wrong, I am in love with living in the manor. But for me, being from the snowy part of the Midwest, being out and about in the comparatively balmy England is heaven. Things are just so beautiful here in the spring, even when it isn't sunny, which is most of the time. People weren't kidding when they told me I would need an umbrella over here!

I love walking the mile down to the grand gate and back, enjoying fantastic views of the Manor on the way back. (I can never get enough of this.)

I love the violets on the way between the Carriage House and the Manor. 

I loved seeing the robin perched in the branches of a tree in the Pegasus Courtyard, singing his puffed-up little heart out. British robins are my new favorite birds- they're just so cute and little compared to our big hulking robins in America!

I love the daffodils that are just now beginning to bloom and starting to see signs of spring in the Italian Garden.

I love the (unfortunately still rare) days when it’s warm enough to sit and sketch in the gardens.

And I especially love the trail in the woods, where you can see snowdrops (sadly now fading) carpeting the woods, bluebells poking their heads out of the dirt, and even-if you keep your eyes open- a rabbit or two, some pheasants, or on one memorable occasion, a stray peacock!

It's where I go when I need to think, when I'm feeling a little homesick, or just because I feel like it. So you could say the woods are a special place for me. It's nice to have a change of pace from classes during the week and to actually get outside for once. Being in the woods definitely gives a different perspective on the manor and on Harlaxton life in general.

During my time here, I’ve also learned a new word for these silly little descriptions: “twee”-- meaning overly flowery, sunshiny, and cute. But isn’t that what spring is all about, in a way? 

Or perhaps I’ve just been reading too much Wordsworth. It’s hard to tell, but I’ll let you be the judge of that.  Either way, I’ll still hate the sunshine— but only as long as I stay indoors.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

The Lake District trip

This weekend was my first official Harlaxton trip! I decided to wait until the Lake District trip because I can get to most places in the UK by train and so the only places I can't get to are those with road access only (Americans reading this blog may be shocked to hear that I can't drive. it's not that I don't want to, I just don't need to in this country: Evansville was a big shock to someone who's used to being ten minutes walking distance away from everything!)

As you can see from the first picture, it's a totally different landscape from lovely flat Lincolnshire: a land that inspired the works of Wordsworth, Wainwright and Beatrix Potter, amongst others. I was really looking forward to wandering the hills and clambering up things, essentially living the life of a goat (or a lakeland sheep!) but with better accomodation (food there was excellent). We spent the first day doing just that, although there was some trail based confusion (ie. there was no trail, just hunderds of possible-paths!) and so we're still not sure how much we walked. Or route was supposed to be 6.5 miles from Ambleside to Rydal and back but it took us at least six hours of solid walking: clearly we got a bit distracted along the way!

We did see some fantastic views and lots of really cool natural twists in the landscape, like this massive cave. Harry Potter fans beware the water in the bottom of this cave was extremely likely to bear Inferi: it was full of shallow, greenish, algal water with many glimpses of bone-like branches... very scary, if you discount the two ducks happily paddling around in it! Christine and I are hard core, we wanted to touch the back of this cave so we clambered in, leapt dramatically from rock to rock and edged to the back, praying that the floor wouldn't give way. Yes, we did make it to the back of the cave, only to turn around and find Alayna balanced precariously on a rock at the enterance, feeding the ducks. "I'm not coming any further," she cried. "Caves freak me out!" I can't blame her: it was a pretty scary place!

Now, on the next day a lot of people went to do activities like kayaking, rock climbing, scrambling up waterfalls etc, but I was too late to sign up so I spent the morning climbing a tarn near the hostel. It was a bit more civilised than the previous walk with actual tarmac paths, so I turned back and wandered through the woodlands at the begining of the trail: much nicer than farm roads and excessive sheep! I hear from everyone that the arranged activities were brilliant; wet, cold but brilliant. I wish I could have joined them, but my solitary ramble was great fun and I got to sit and draw for a while too, without boring anyone else. Later that day we took the river boat cruise to Bowness which I would highly recommend people do: take a cruise earlier in the day than we did though, as we only got an hour or so in Bowness. it's a really pretty town with lots of cute shops and ICE CREAM: I got raspberry ripple and apple pie in a chocolate waffle cone ;). I don't have any Bowness pics, but here's one of our hostel from the cruise, which moors up right next door.

Later that night we decided, after much umming and erring, to do the Polar Plunge, or Lake Leap at about 10pm that night. To paint the scene it was ridiculously dark, the water was black, it was raining and it was . You couldn't see much further than a few feet in front of you, and we didn't actually know how deep the water was at the end of the Jetty, only that other people had managed to complete this feat and had survived. trembling with anticipation (fear? cold?) we went down to the jetty itself, handed over cameras, possessions, clothes, a list of loved ones etc., linked hands, and... leapt.

Now, anyone that has known me for a while knows that I have two major fears: falling and drowning. It's not heights as such, just any sensation of wobbling, being off balance: even ice skating and skiing turns me into a crumbled wreck (this is the main reason I wasn't rock climbing with everyone else!). Luckily I'd never had to face my drowning fears until the moment I hit the black waters. The shock of realising I was in the lake was enough to throw me completely off, but when I got to the edge of the jetty and realised I couldn't get enough grip to heave myself out... words cannot express my natural panic levels, but maybe this charming video will help you out.

I should probably emphasise at this point that neither Harlaxton College nor the Youth Hostel itself recommends jumping off of the jetty... however, everyone who took the plunge that night will tell you it was a life changing experience. After getting out I can say that I've never felt more alive: your senses are fired up, you're awake, and you're really, really warm from the adrenaline.

Sadly it was soon time to say good bye to the Lake District. On the way home we stopped in Keswick, another lovely town with lots of really nice shops and cafes. This is a view of the Lake which we also spent some time frolicking on the shore of: naturally (this being England) the weather had cleared up and the sun was shining because it was the day that we had to leave!

All in all the Lake District trip may be one that seems less exotic than Paris or Stonehenge, but it has to come highly recommended. The experience is so different to living in Lincolnshire that it was like visiting another country for me, just no language barrier, no weird food, no massive dangers outside of lake leaping of course! I only wish it could have been longer!