Hiking Through the Cotswolds

It’s been several weeks since my last post; in the meantime I’ve been enjoying the final weeks of my Easter Holiday travelling with my family, travelling to the southwest of England by myself, and hiking with friends.  I’ve been to the place where Thomas Beckett was murdered/martyred in Canterbury Cathedral, I’ve stood on top of a lighthouse overlooking the white cliffs of Dover, and I’ve eaten a scrumptious sandwich in Sandwich.  It has been a delightful break.  But now, Trinity Term is starting up and soon I will be back to attending lectures and writing papers (and posting blogs more regularly again!).

Although I could go on and on about everywhere I’ve been these past couple weeks, I would like to focus on the final five days of my vacation.  Towards the middle of last term, my roommate asked a bunch of the visiting students if anyone would be interested in a hike along “Shakespeare’s Way”, a trail that runs nearly 150 miles from Stratford-upon-Avon—Shakespeare’s birthplace—to the Globe Theatre in London.  One other brave soul (also named Mike) and myself thought it would be a wonderful way to end our holiday and whole-heartedly agreed to join him.  We decided to hike the 60-mile stretch from Stratford to Oxford.  On the 14th of April, we took a bus out to Stratford to begin our adventure.

Our first day was spent simply exploring Stratford.  We visited Trinity Church, the home of Shakespeare’s tomb.  It also curiously had what is known as a ‘weeping chancel’, which means that the chancel is bent to one side (rather than at a right angle), thus emphasizing Christ bent in agony on the cross.  According to a guide at the church, this style of chancel was popular with groups seeking to emphasize the humanity of Christ; if I remember correctly, he said that there are probably about 70 or so weeping chancels across Britain.  For dinner, we ate at the Black Swan, affectionately known as the Dirty Duck, a pub popular with the actors and crew of the Royal Shakespeare’s Company, the theatre of which was just down the road.  After a restful night and a hearty breakfast at our B&B, we were ready to hit the trail.

We swiftly discovered that this hike would be like none that any of us had ever done before.  Although our guidebook had warned us that the trail would take us through private property (thanks to the owner’s kind permission), we did not quite realize what that would entail until we found ourselves crossing through the middle of what was to be the first of many large sheep pastures.  We quickly became acquainted with the colourful language of our guidebook, which such delightful passages as “our old friend, the river Stour”, “pass the scrappy fence”, and the positive gem:  “as you continue, glance back to watch as the stately home descends like a great ship beyond the horizon”.  The authors of the guide certainly kept us entertained.  As our first day of hiking drew to an end, the trail brought us to the edge of a vast yellow field of canola in full bloom.  The trail cut straight through the middle, and by the time we emerged from the other side to reach our destination for the day (Shipston-on-Stour), all three of us were thoroughly dusted with a bright layer of pollen.

The next few days brought us much of the same; the trail wound through pastures and fields, towns and woodland, hills and streambeds.  The weather cooperated beyond our wildest hopes, never being too hot nor too cold, and there wasn’t a single drop of rain the entire hike.  Every day we were presented with stunning vistas of the beautiful English countryside.  We had an extraordinary view of Blenheim Palace, and even walked past the surprisingly humble grave of Winston Churchill himself.  Our last day took us along a canal straight into Oxford, and after 60 miles of walking, returning to the “City of Dreaming Spires” had never before felt so much like coming home.

Cathedrals

It has been a little longer than usual since my last post.  Before I start this week’s blog, I wanted to give an update on my latest travels.  Since I last posted, I have been to Stirling, Liverpool, Lincoln, London, Bath, Chester, and Llangollen, exploring these vastly different cities.  On Saturday morning, my mother, father, and sister arrived safely at Heathrow to start their week and a half vacation here in the UK.  I’ve missed them all terribly, and I am so happy to get to spend these ten days with them.  But more our travels together next week; this week, I would like to talk about cathedrals.

Throughout the past almost six months, I have had the good fortune to be able to visit several cathedrals and abbeys throughout the United Kingdom.  As I have recently learned, cathedrals are churches that contain the seat of the bishop in charge of the local diocese and abbeys are churches that are, or once were, homes to a monastery or convent (thanks Wikipedia!).  The result in both cases is often a magnificent monumental masterpiece stretching towards the heavens which, at least until recent years, was usually the tallest building of a city.  Two of the most impressive cathedrals I have ever seen were both in Liverpool:  Liverpool Cathedral and Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.

Liverpool Cathedral is the Anglican cathedral of Liverpool, and it is utterly massive.  Completed in 1978, it is made of a beautiful red sandstone and it is the largest cathedral in the United Kingdom (and fifth largest in the world).  It has two pipe organs, the larger of which—the Grand Organ—may be the largest operational organ in the world with its 10,267 pipes.  Although it may be a very young cathedral, especially when compared with such venerable churches as Bath Abbey and Chester Cathedral, Liverpool Cathedral is simply awe-inspiring.  With its Neo-Gothic architecture, it looks exactly as one would expect a cathedral to look, only built to an extreme scale.  Its tower dominates the skyline, and it is impossible to walk underneath its vaults without being struck by its majesty.

Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral is the Roman Catholic cathedral of Liverpool, and it could hardly be more different from her sister Anglican cathedral.  Although older than the Anglican cathedral by eleven years, the Catholic cathedral is clearly a modernist cathedral.  It looks quite like an inverted funnel topped by spires, and is affectionately known as “Paddy’s Wigwam” or “the Mersey Funnel”.  The central tower of the cathedral houses what may be the world’s largest stained glass window.  The inside of the church, as well as the outside, is round rather than cruciform, giving the interior space a massive and unified appearance.  Along the edges are various chapels; most are decorated with intriguing modern abstract sculptures.  Despite its non-traditional appearance, Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral does not fail to inspire awe.

Cathedrals are among the most impressive structures ever built.  They serve a noble purpose:  to inspire awe and draw people closer to the divine.  Regardless of your beliefs, cathedrals are proud witnesses to the beauty and majesty that human hands, thousands of them working in harmony, can produce.  They force the individual to confront his or her own humanity; faced with such monumental structures, produced over decades by generations of people working towards a common goal, who cannot help but be humbled by what these monuments represent?  Although humans have caused a lot of harm in this world, both individually and collectively, cathedrals and other such monumental structures remind us of what truly great things we are capable of, if only we find a way to overcome our differences and work together.