Monday, July 23, 2007

What I did on my summer vacation

So, yeah, I'm back from England. Nothing really wild or exciting to report -- I was staying with my mother, siblings, girlfriend, and most of my mom's family in a small town called Lymington, in Hampshire. Lymington was once represented in London by no less than Edward Gibbon of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Being a small town in the south of England, we all had a lovely time, and even managed to have a brief day in London -- long enough to see the major landmarks and a few hours at the British National Museum. You walk in knowing about the Rosetta stone, you expect to see the Rosetta stone, and then, bang, you're looking at the freakin' Rosetta Stone. Pretty cool.

I'm not sure if Lymington is technically considered to be inside the New Forest or not, but the New Forest is an interesting thing to see -- crown land in the South, where horses and cows roam around the side of the highways, sometimes uncomfortably close to the road. On one long, mud-filled trek around the marshes near where we were staying, my brother, girlfriend and I turned a bend in the trees to find about a half dozen horses and cows. My first thought was "oh shit, we've somehow trespassed onto private land and some farmer's livestock is grazing here." Turns out this probably wasn't the case -- rather, we'd met some of the long-term residents of the New Forest, who were generally unimpressed with our appearance. Whatever the ruminant equivalent of "psh, tourists" is, I'm pretty sure we heard it.

The New Forest is of course only "new" in the sense that it was created by William the Conqueror in 1079 so that he could have a game reserve. With all the problems that we've got today, I've got to say it's somehow heartening to see that it's possible, if only just, to maintain that kind of conservation ethic over 900 years and more.

London was interesting, obviously. What I found most interesting -- for the, like, seven hours I was there -- was the obvious contradictions between two sides of British history. On the one hand, you have a number of landmarks that date back about a thousand years or so, and the tour guides all very loudly point them out ("look, American tourist! OLD THINGS!") On the other hand, the really prominent landmarks (Trafalgar Square, anything beginning with the syllable "Vic-") are "only" a bit older than say, the British North America Act. Thus, while there are a few nods towards the millenium of Englishness, the real monuments you see the most are not, say, from when England lost the 100 Years' War, or from the Black Death*, but rather date from the apex of British power. I couldn't help but think of how Washington, DC, changed so rapidly during and immediately after World War II. The capitals of empire don't really reflect their history -- they reflect their power.

*Of course, the other reason so little was preserved from truly old London is the Great Fire of 1666. Given the destruction of 80% of the city, and the creation of the United Kingdom itself only a few decades later, London might therefore be the most "British" city in England.

When I wasn't in London or Lymington, I was in Gosport where my mother lived when she was younger. Gosport is just across the river from Portsmouth, which is where the HMS Victory is berthed. The Victory, for those who aren't naval history nerds, was the ship that carried Adm. Nelson's flag during the Battle of Trafalgar, when Nelson famously signalled "England expects that every man will do his duty." And if you wonder, "Gee, this is all very interesting, but can I buy kitschy memorabilia with those words plastered all over them at the gift shop?" Yes, yes you can.

1 comment:

celestialspeedster said...

Did you notice all the cameras on the street? While in London, we watched a documentary justifying the pervasive Big Brother culture in the city. They took the most extreme example to make their point: a 12 year old kid using a screwdriver to break into an electrical box in the middle of the night. "If we hadn't spotted him on our cameras, he may have been killed. Cameras are therefore very good." You know what is also good: parents who don't let their 12 year olds out in the middle of the night!