On Tuesday, we made our way to Stratford Upon Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. We took the train for this journey, seeing it was quite a lengthy trip and I wanted to give our driver the day to himself. For most of the boys this would be there first experience on a train and they all seemed quite enthralled by the idea, especially my two grandsons. I guess Thomas the Tank Engine had left them with a lasting impression and a love for this mode of transportation.
We boarded the train at the station that was just a short walk from our hotel, found a place where we could all sit as a group and were soon on our way. The boys watched the scenery fly by the windows and were lulled into a very relaxed state by the rhythmic clickity-clack sounds the wheels made as they rolled over the spots where the various segments of track were joined. I just sat back and watched the boys, enjoying their reactions to everything that was going on around them. I did this because I realized the expressions on their faces would be far more interesting than whatever scenery I would see by looking out at the countryside.
I was watching my grandsons when Jordan looked in my direction and then got up and walked toward me. I wasn’t sure what he wanted, but I knew I was about to find out.
“Why don’t people ride trains where we live?” he asked me, in a serious little boy voice. “I think they’re fun.”
“Well, people in and around the large cities often do, but they’re called subways there,” I informed him, which brought a look of shock and disbelief to his face.
“Why do they call them that, instead of trains?” he wanted to know.
“It’s because they don’t always travel above ground, on the land,” I informed him. “Sometimes they travel in tunnels underground and that’s how it got the name. Sub means under or beneath and that’s how submarines got their name, because they go under or beneath the water. Subway means the train runs under or beneath something, like a city and city streets.”
“Oh, I get it, Papa!” Jordan exclaimed, as it all began to make sense. “It’s a train whose tracks go under the ground. That’s neat.”
“Yes, it is,” I agreed. “Years ago trains were the easiest way to travel long distances, but when roads began to improve, especially with the interstate highway system, and as more and more people owned their own cars, it seemed that everyone wanted the freedom to travel when they chose and not just when the trains were running. That’s why trains have been disappearing from use over the past fifty or sixty years.”
“But Harry Potter still takes the train to Hogwarts,” he added.
“Yes, because as you’ve seen, the British still rely heavily on their trains,” I agreed. My response seemed to satisfy his curiosity, so he went back to looking at the areas we were passing by.
When we arrived at our destination, it was as if we had been transported back in time, to the late 16th or early 17th century. We were surrounded by all kinds of historic Tudor buildings and some of them still had thatched roofs, which were made of straw, hay or long grasses, reminiscent of the time when they were first built. As we walked about, we discovered an old Tudor schoolhouse and went inside. It was filled with rows of large wooden desks, which looked quite uncomfortable, but still had a similar feel to the one room schoolhouse Danny, Brandon, Ricky, Jay and I had stopped at in Lancaster, PA, on our first vacation together.
After leaving there, we crossed over the medieval stone bridge, while we also checked out the stone Gild Chapel and the Holy Trinity church. William Shakespeare, the great writer and poet, once owned Holy Trinity Church, which he purchased after King Henry VIII confiscated all the property of the Catholic church. It now features a monument to him, with a remarkable tanned likeness. The monument is fitting, since Shakespeare was also baptized and is now buried there.
From there, we moved on to Shakespeare’s birthplace, which was completely furnished with the same types of belongings that would have been there while he was alive. A massive, 4-poster canopy bed nearly filled up his bedroom, but there was also a scattering of other furniture appropriate for the period. The walls were covered in brightly painted pieces of cloth, much like we might find wallpaper used in a room now, and this really gave us a feel for what life must have been like during that period in history. It also reminded us how hard and dreary life must have been for the majority of those living at the time.
Our only disappointment with Stratford was with the Royal Shakespeare Theater. It was nice enough, but I guess we were all expecting to see something similar to the old Globe Theater, where Shakespeare’s plays were first performed. Instead we found a modern brick building that didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the community. We did see a performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ there and it was quite well done, but I think we lost some of the feel for what it would have been like to watch it during Shakespeare’s times. In addition to that, most of the boys had difficulty understanding what the play was about, due to the archaic speech used and the unfamiliar British accent, but they did seem to enjoy the various characters, especially Puck. Later, once we were alone, I explained the story to them, which gave them a better impression about what they had seen, before they agreed they had enjoyed it.
After we were back on the train, Danny approached me with an observation of his own. “Dad, I think Puck was gay,” he told me, but I wasn’t sure if this was being said tongue-in-cheek.
“He was a fairy,” I teased back, in reply.
“Maybe, but it was what he said that made me think that,” Danny continued. “I tried to remember that line, so let me see if I can get it right. ‘My Oberon! What visions I have seen! Methought I was enamour’d of an ass.’” Danny giggled after saying that. “I’m enamored with an ass too,” he added. “It’s Brandon’s.” Brandon grinned and playfully punched Danny in the arm.
“And you’d better not be fooling with any others,” Brandon shot back, while also flashing me a smug and satisfied look, which I think meant ‘he’s my main squeeze and we’re going to be together for a long time.’
On the ride back, the boys spent time exploring the English countryside and commented on how it wasn’t all that different from where we lived, except the houses seemed to be far older here than in Pennsylvania. I agreed. The rolling landscape wasn’t that dissimilar; although some areas did appear much more open than where we lived.
When we arrived back at the hotel, things were a little different than on our other stays there. This was going to be our last night in London. We’d be making one more day trip, but spending the next night far away from this wonderful city, and then my older children would be departing for their homes, taking my grandsons with them. Due to the fact we’d soon be going our own way, the boys decided we should go out to a nice restaurant tonight. They wanted this to serve as a farewell feast to both the city and to the others who would be leaving us shortly.
I decided to add to the festivities by ordering wine and letting everyone have up to a glass of it, including those who were underage. The adults would be allowed to drink all they (or their spouse) thought they could handle. However, before indulging the younger ones to a glass, I decided to give them a taste first, to see their reaction to it.
“Yuck, that’s awful!” Nicky exclaimed, before spitting his small mouthful back into his glass.
“Papa, can I just have soda instead,” Jordan asked, also not enjoying his sample.
“You can and you may,” I replied, without him catching on to my grammar lesson.
“Me too,” Nicky added, before Sammy, Andrew and Graham all indicated they’d prefer a soda to the wine as well.
During the evening, the boys made sure to let their oldest brothers and sisters know how much they enjoyed this vacation together, but they really showered their nephews with attention, letting Jordan and Nicky know how special they thought they were. Both boys were aglow from all of this special recognition and you could tell how much they loved and appreciated all of their young uncles. It was a very special dinner and it turned out to be a sort of private Thanksgiving meal.
My grandsons slept with their uncles that night and the older boys managed to squeeze everyone into a single room. They let the younger boys share the beds, with one grandson in each one and two of their younger uncles, while the older boys slept on the floor of that room, so they would all be together for one final night. It touched me deeply when I went in to wake them up the next morning, seeing them all so happy and peaceful, and Jordan and Nicky couldn’t wait to tell their parents about the fun they all had together. I guess the boys attempted to make it memorable and told their nephews some stories before they went to sleep. Not only did they tell them these stories, but acted them out too, putting on quite a show in the process. They must have done a wonderful job, because that was all the youngest pair could talk about for hours.
After breakfast, we loaded onto the bus and headed west, across the countryside. It was really beautiful scenery, driving across gently rolling grasslands, but as desolate as it appeared, it felt as if we were driving to the middle of nowhere, which maybe we were. I was one of the few who knew where we were heading – to the Salisbury plain and Stonehenge.
You all know the image the name Stonehenge conjures up when spoken – gigantic boulders sticking up out of the earth with capstones extending between adjoining columns. I think most of us also picture ancient Druid priests performing pagan rituals within this circle, but do we really know what Stonehenge was and what it meant to those ancient peoples? It is now believed that Stonehenge was built in stages, between 2800 and 1800 BCE, to help in the observation of astronomical phenomena, such as the summer and winter solstices, eclipses and more. This was not only for religious purposes, but it helped them decide when to do other things, like when to plant their crops and then when to harvest them. Thus, it was a multi-purpose structure.
“I feel out of place in these clothes here,” Kevin told me, as we looked around.
“Well, just keep them on, because I’m not sure how all of these other people would react to you being naked,” I joked.
“No, not naked!” he shot back. “I meant I feel as if I should be in a hooded robe and we should be carrying torches or have them ready to use, once it gets dark.”
“Yeah, this place really feels old,” Dustin chimed in, “not just looks it. It’s almost like we should be carrying out some sort of ancient ceremony to the land or something.”
“I almost expect to see a line of priests from some long forgotten religion popping up and starting to chant or offer up a sacrifice,” Pat added.
“Yes, it does have that sort of a feel about it, doesn’t it?” I responded, understanding what each of them was saying.
I took many pictures of the boys while we were there, some while standing under one of the huge stone arches, showing how small they were in comparison, or with them sitting on one of the fallen stones, or a long range shot with the whole family, minus me, standing with Stonehenge looming behind them. After that, we learned about some of the theories concerning how the stones were brought here and arranged, as they are not natural to the area. It is assumed these boulders were transported over long distances, possibly from Wales, before they were erected at the site. That must have been an enormous undertaking with the primitive technology of the day, but somehow they managed to pull it off, a truly impressive feat.
After we saw all that we wanted to there, we boarded the bus and made our way to our next stop, the Roman-founded city of Bath, then known as Aquae Sulis. It was getting late when we arrived there, so we decided to eat, get our rooms, and rest for the night. We would start early tomorrow and go to the various sites, before we dropped off my older children and their families at the airport.
Thursday morning we awoke early, had a good breakfast and then headed for our first stop, the Roman baths. It was what you might expect to see in a film about ancient Rome, like the scene in Spartacus. The city was founded and became popular because of the natural hot springs that fed the baths, something the ancient Romans adored.
The building was adorned with stone columns supporting the roof of a covered walkway, which surrounded a large, open pool where the dignitaries would have bathed. There were stone benches and other conveniences against the walls. These benches would have been used by those frequenting here, as a place to relax or as a location where they could converse with a friend. There were Roman statues to various gods and goddesses about the area and we got a look at the substructure and learned how the bath would have operated once it was built.
“Too bad we couldn’t have come here and enjoyed the spa like the Romans did,” Michael offered. “I would have enjoyed sitting in some nicely heated water right now.”
“Michael, you’re beginning to sound like an old man,” I teased.
“Well, I kind of feel it, after carrying Nicky so much,” he answered. “My back in killing me.”
“Then be smart and let the other, MUCH YOUNGER boys do that for you,” I emphasized. “You know how they love your son.”
“I know, but Nicky was indicating he wanted me to carry him for a while,” Michael replied. “I know he loves his uncles, but I think he felt either I was neglecting him or he was neglecting me at the time.” I just nodded my understanding, thinking back upon a time when Nicky’s father might have acted in the same manner with me.
After we left the spa, we went on to see the Bath Abbey, a large stone Gothic sanctuary with elaborate stone carvings on the outer surface. It was also adorned with flying buttresses, fan-vaulted ceilings, and the typical plaques and tombs to the wealthy and famous. It was not as large or elaborate as some of the other churches we had seen, but it was still a very impressive edifice.
When we left the abbey, we took a tour of the rest of the city that had grown up around the spa. Over the years, especially during Victorian times, this was a very popular place to visit and Georgian architecture covers much of the area. They were constructed to meet the demands for elegant living quarters, being made by those favoring this place as a refuge. As the city grew up around it, it turned into a very impressive area and has many impressive structures, including the Georgian-style Landsdown and Royal Crescents, as well as other magnificently built row houses. The outlying area also contains several massive manor houses, where the aristocrats lived. As quaint and as lovely as the city was, we decided to finish our tour and eat, before it was time to take my older children to catch their flights and say our final good-byes at the airport.
The ride from Bath to Heathrow airport was long and somewhat sad. We had all had a good time together, but we were unhappy that our time together was nearing an end. The boys made their rounds to say their farewells to those that were soon to leave us, especially Jordan and Nicky. Those two had been with us for so long that it was like they were part of our immediate family, not just our extended family. It was quite an emotional ride, and not just the time we spent on the bus. Before we reached the airport, I found Nicky and Jordan coming up to sit with me for the remainder of the trip, one cuddled against either side of me, thanking me for the great vacations.
“Papa, thank you for taking me with you to all these great places,” Nicky told me. “I had a lot of fun with you and all my uncles.”
“Me too,” Jordan added. “That mule ride was great and all the neat things we’ve seen and places we’ve visited. I hope you’ll take us with you again, next year,” he added, to plant a seed for the future.
Both of my grandsons then hugged me, followed by an energetic kiss on each cheek. Man, I was really going to miss these little rascals. Needless to say, I had a few tears in my eyes and a major lump in my throat before we got off of the bus.
The older boys volunteered to carry the luggage in for those leaving us, so they didn’t have to be bothered with it as they said their good-byes. After we got all of those leaving checked in for their flights, another round of hugs and kisses ensued. It was evident none of us wanted this to end. However, it wasn’t much longer before they were forced to make their way to the boarding gate, so they wouldn’t miss their flight. We all waved at each other, until they had disappeared from sight, and then I herded the boys back to the bus.
From here, the bus headed south and we would now spend our final week in England. This time it was just the boys and I, but I hoped they wouldn’t find this a letdown, after parting from the rest of our family.