Friday, May 21, 2010


This is my last England related post, I think. All photos from this trip can be seen here.

I first visited Arundel in 1995, as part of the Singer Family European Extravaganza, an amazing five weeks during which the SingerParents, PetDoc and I rented a motorhome and did a grand tour of Europe. That trip was an amazing experience, a great family bonding exercise, and something we still talk about on a regular basis, and remember with great fondness.

However, that trip was a long time ago, and my memories of seeing Arundel were hazy. I remembered a really cool castle, but the details weren't there anymore. As well, the first time I visited Arundel I didn't know the context and history, and as I have learned more about British history, particularly the medieval and Tudor time periods, Arundel and its occupants have come up time and time again. So now with the castle more firmly placed in historical context for me, I wanted to see it again.

The most important connection Arundel has to British history is that it is the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk, who have traditionally held great power and influence (interestingly, they are one of the few aristocratic families in England to have remained Catholic after the Reformation and retained their position in the aristocracy). Perhaps the best known is the 3rd Duke, who was the uncle of both Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard (2nd and 5th wives of Henry VIII) and a major force in the political manoeuvering and manipulation of the Tudor court. Even today the Duke of Norfolk is one of the most important peers in the country, and holds several (mostly ceremonial now) posts.

A more minor connection, but one that is very interesting to me, is the one with the Empress Matilda (or Maude, as she was also known). In the last few years I have done a lot of reading about medieval England and the pre-Tudor period, and Matilda is one of the most fascinating stories I have come across. In a nutshell: she was the daughter of Henry I, granddaughter of William the Conqueror. As her father's only legitimate child, she was named as his heir and intended to take the throne when he died. However, the Middle Ages being what they were, many of the barons felt a mere woman would not be able to rule the country properly (Elizabeth I, Victoria, and Elizabeth II would beg to differ, but I digress) and when Henry I died a cousin of Matilda's, Stephen, seized the throne. Matilda fought for her crown, and the country endured fifteen years of bloody civil war. Matilda briefly gained power but only for a few months and she was never crowned. Eventually a compromise was reached after Stephen's son and heir died, and he agreed to name Matilda's son, Henry, as his heir. Henry became Henry II, most famous for his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Plantagenet dynasty (including Richard the Lionheart and Prince John of Robin Hood fame), and the martyrdom of Thomas Becket.

What does all this have to do with Arundel, I hear you asking? Well, when Matilda first landed in England in 1139 to begin the long fight to regain her throne (she had been living in France when her father died) she stayed at Arundel castle. And the room in which she stayed is still there, and you can go and stand in it. Nine hundred years later. If you know me, even a little, you know how much and why that gives me chills.

The castle is about 90 minutes from London on the train, and a quick ten minute hike from the train station at Arundel village. Unless you're like me, and you hike up the wrong side of the castle first and have to go back down and hike up the other side to actually get to the entrance gate. Oops. Once I reached the (right) entry gate, a lovely gentleman volunteer approached and asked if I had visited Arundel before. "When I was a girl," I replied. "So you've come back to see if we've moved anything around, have you?"

The funny thing is, it kind of felt like they had. Even though I had been to Arundel before, nothing felt familiar. But that was ok, it just meant I got to explore it as if for the first time! Although I of course enjoyed seeing the state rooms and fancy furnishings, the part I enjoyed most was climbing up to the keep, which is the original part of the castle built in the 1100s, and just breathing in the history surrounding me. I am always taken aback when I encounter something this old on my trips to Europe ... the mere fact that I can be standing where people stood a thousand years ago and seeing the exact same thing they saw is mindboggling to me. (I know there were people standing where I am here in Canada 1000 years ago, too, but the landscape has changed so much since then that it doesn't evoke the same connection for me.) It always kind of feels like I've stumbled onto a movie set or something, and I have to remind myself that no, this is the real thing.

Speaking of movie sets, I lingered in the great hall to listen to one of the (very helpful and friendly) guides tell a group about how a scene from the movie The Young Victoria was filmed there last year, with Arundel standing in for Windsor Castle. Having just visited Windsor, and having seen the film, and being a royalty buff in general, this of course caught my interest. The guide was also an extra in the scene, although he said you can't see him in the final cut. But he told some stories about filming and pointed out that at one point over the king's shoulder you can see a glorious painting of a distinguished churchman ... unfortunately the painting was painted several decades after the scene in question was supposed to take place (and of course doesn't belong at Windsor Castle at all, since it obviously belongs at Arundel Castle). The film was one of my options on the flight home the next day, and having just visited so many of the places that feature prominently in it (Windsor, Kensington, etc.) it was fun to rewatch it with new eyes.

So that was my trip to England. I'd like to think of it as my annual Easter trip to London, having gone last Easter as well, but with PetDoc and Noise heading home in a few days (yay!) I think the chances of me spending next Easter in London are slim. But never say never, I guess! Who knows what next year will bring?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Wonderful Windsor

A couple more England-related posts, although a bit later than I intended.

Apparently while I was away, Serdic was asked what his wife was doing in England, and his response was "seeing as many castles as she can possibly get to, I think." And it's true that this trip was particularly heavy on the "big piles of stone that used to house famous people" portion of the itinerary. Besides the previously mentioned excursions to Hever and Kensington Palace, I did two day trips by myself (while PetDoc and Noise had to work) -- first to Windsor Castle, then to Arundel Castle. I had been to both castles before, on previous trips to England, but for a variety of reasons I decided I wanted to revisit both.

I had actually been to Windsor twice before, once on my very first trip to England when I was in grade 10 (it was a school March Break trip), and again five years ago when SingerDad and I did a trip to England and Ireland. On that first trip, we only went into the chapel, but didn't tour the castle itself. And I was too young to appreciate the history of the chapel, or its place in British royal history (I certainly didn't realize that Henry VIII and Charles I were buried there, among other illustrious rulers and consorts!). On the second trip, SingerDad and I toured the castle, but unfortunately we chose a Sunday as our Windsor day, and the chapel (by this time I was more acquainted with its history) was closed to visitors. So I decided to give it one more shot, and see if I could have the complete Windsor experience.

Windsor is an easy trip from London on the train, and the castle is only a few minutes by foot from the train station. I had made one miscalculation -- this was Monday, Easter Monday to be exact, and a bank holiday in the UK. Imagine my surprise and chagrin when I rounded the corner of the castle to discover the line to enter stretched for blocks. I briefly debated how badly I wanted to do this, but decided that I was already there and going back to London and making a Plan B would take longer than waiting in line. So I took a deep breath and plunged in. I waited approximately 45 minutes and the line seemed at times to be barely moving, although I did eventually figure out that part of the problem was that they were changing the guard inside the castle and limiting entrance until that was over. Once the guard had paraded away, the pace of the line picked up a little. (I nearly cried a little, though, when I finally, finally got up to the "tickets" hut and discovered that inside there was one of those Disneyland-esque winding layouts that added a good fifteen minutes to the wait when you thought you were almost there!)

Once I had my ticket and was through security (I still find it a little strange to go through a metal detector anywhere other than an airport, but I understand why they are becoming more common, even if it does make me sad), things picked up considerably. Despite the long line the crowds inside were not too bad, and I was able to wander and explore as I chose. I decided to do the state apartments first, followed by the chapel. Both were open and so I finally felt like I got my full Windsor experience.

I love Windsor, frankly. It has the perfect mixture of historical and contemporary -- I think mostly because the royal family still lives there, so it still feels like a living, working castle, even though it is also one of the oldest in the country. It brings together all those things I love about England -- the pomp and circumstance, the history and tradition, the royals, and the very essential "britishness" of the place. And in a very silly sort of way, I also feel an affinity for Windsor because I grew up on Windsor Street, so the very word evokes all those good associations of home and family and happiness and all that jazz. So it was a really cool day, and I'm glad I didn't turn around and go back to London when I saw the line to get in!

Next post will be Arundel, and I promise it won't take me another month to get to it!