When I was younger and we spent long summers at our cottage up in Northern Ontario, I used to read books by the author Miss Read. Miss Read, in real life, was called Dora Saint, and she was a schoolteacher in the Cotswolds Region of England during the 1950s. Her charming stories were some of my favourite cottage reads. I loved learning about the beautiful English villages, hearing the simple, comforting stories of village life, and with regret, I would always put them back on the shelf when I was finished, looking forward to re-reading them again when I visited the cottage next. I always dreamed I’d get to go to England and see the villages, experience the history firsthand. But it was a pipe dream for a long time. Money, time, employment – none of those factors lined up. I began to think my experience of England would be in books and stories told by my father and grandmother. I reconciled myself to it.
Well, it took two years, but I finally got to go to England to visit my best friend last week. I was curious as to how it would be – I am 3/4 English and my dad was born in Scotland, so we have close ties to England and our heritage there. I wondered if I’d feel totally out of place, or if I’d feel comfortable in the place my family came from. And the fact is, it felt somewhat like home, though the streets were unfamiliar. It felt like home because the history and the culture were so familiar to me. I’d read so much, and heard so much, that seeing landmarks and villages in person was like meeting old, familiar friends.
Whether it was placing my hand on the almost-thousand-year-old stone walls of the Tower of London just to feel the years breathe, being unable to stay in the Wakefield Tower long because of the horrible energy there, wandering around the most charming, perfect Cotswold village imaginable, or standing under Big Ben, listening to the bells ring out over the city, I felt like I belonged. And that was simply so amazing that I didn’t have words for a few days afterwards. I arrived home on Saturday and I sit down now to write this blog, because now I can put words to how I felt standing in London with people all around me and history at my fingertips.
I’m not usually a tactile person, but a strange and quirky trait I have is needing to touch history. I put my hand on every old building. I run my fingertips over carved marble in cathedrals and I feel the cool stone through my palms. I don’t know if you can really feel the energy from people in the past, but I like to think I’m somehow connecting with them when I do that. And it was amazing to touch walls that were so old, so much older than anything we have in Canada. Walls that had seen years of life and history. It was humbling and it was amazing. I still shiver to think about standing there, touching the walls, listening to the stories they had to tell me. There is so much inspiration in a place that has stood well before you and will stand well after you.
And not just London and its beautiful buildings – breathing the fresh air of the Cotswold downs, and sitting in a naturally-warm pool on a rooftop in Bath, and driving in a bumpy, jumpy bus over roads that twist, turn, climb and fall to a temple that has stood for thousands and thousands of years . . . it’s an experience that I never thought I’d have. Standing there, at Stonehenge, and hearing the absolute silence that comes in sacred places was surreal. Every visitor kept their voices down, there among the stones. I felt the weight of the years on me and it was absolutely transcendent. These are the reasons I write and read what I do. These are the reasons I became a storyteller.
The way history fits among the new – that’s what we don’t do here in North America. It’s easier to knock it down, forget where we came from. I never have loved anything more than walking along a street and seeing the old and new together, existing harmoniously. It makes me wonder where we went wrong, trying to erase the history and buildings of old. I love Toronto, but I hate the way very little of the old exists among the new. We don’t even have temples like Stonehenge because our ancestral tribes and stewards of this land were ignored and almost erased themselves.
And as awesome and humbling as it was, there was so much fun to be had. Eating at restaurants unheard of to me – like a Polish-Mexican place that seemed totally incongruous but was simply delicious – and enjoying so much food and wine as we just existed in a city that welcomed us. Running to get the last train, trailing one after the other, in and out of streets and up and down staircases. Bumping along in a wild-driving double-decker bus, sightseeing and fearing for our lives all at once. And the many moments of companionship and conversation from someone who grew to love England as another home in her nomadic existence, someone who has always represented home to me in the many paths I’ve taken in life. Maybe that’s why England felt so familiar. I had someone I loved there to show it to me.
I don’t know if much of this makes sense. Maybe it’s simply more ramblings from someone enamoured with a childhood dream. But it made sense to me. Where I went, what I learned, the things I saw and the moments I experienced, standing in an ancestral home, a dreamy far-away country that I never thought I’d visit.
It was everything I hoped for. I wish I was still there. And to the real-life folks who hosted me, I owe you so much thanks.
To the historical figures that flitted around the buildings I visited, I thank you, too. I know you were there showing me your worlds, too.
I raise a glass – this extended love letter is for you, too.