Well, I am home. I saw so much and thought so many things in the last two weeks, that I’m struggling a bit how to organize my thoughts to tell you anything, so we’ll see how this goes. One of the reasons I love visiting old places and seeing historical sites is because I feel so profoundly connected to the past and to the men and women who for centuries (and sometimes millennia, depending on where you visit!) struggled, loved, died, ached with the same yearnings that we do today. That’s nothing profound, to be sure, but there’s something mystical about that, and I found myself struck with that feeling again and again as I wandered around for the last two weeks.
So, for a few of my favorite places, though many more will be posted later. Today’s pictures are just about feeling so deeply allied with the past, as I felt when I was in the presence of Dickens’s writing desk that I wrote about the other day (believe me, it was a presence).
First, Hatchard’s in London. It was opened in 1797, which makes it the oldest bookshop in the city, and it is a book-lover’s fantasy. I just love (among so many other things) that some of the same titles that would have been there in 1797, are still sold there today. For all my fellow book enthusiasts, let that delicious feeling just curl into your toes like hot cider at Christmas. Because that’s what it felt like to be in that shop:
Second, Blackfriars Bridge. It’s the third oldest bridge across the Thames in London, which opened in 1769, and I delighted in thinking about all the people who have passed over it over the centuries. It also happens to be a key site in two of my favorite books: Daniel Deronda by George Eliot and The Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare.
Of this bridge, one of Eliot’s characters remarks: ”See the sky, how it is slowly fading. I have always loved this bridge: I stood on it when I was a little boy. It is a meeting-place for the spiritual messengers. It is true — what the Masters said — that each order of things has its angel: that means the full message of each from what is afar. Here I have listened to the messages of earth and sky; when I was stronger I used to stay and watch for the stars in the deep heavens. But this time just about sunset was always what I loved best. It has sunk into me and dwelt with me — fading, slowly fading: it was my own decline: it paused — it waited, till at last it brought me my new life — my new self — who will live when this breath is all breathed out.”
Third, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. Yes, this is a pub, but it is far from an ordinary pub. It was frequented by Charles Dickens, and it was also visited by (brace yourself for this list) Alfred Tennyson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Thomas Carlyle, Wilkie Collins, Voltaire, Mark Twain, G.K. Chesterton, and Samuel Johnson (among a whole score of others). It’s also thought to be referenced in A Tale of Two Cities as one of the pubs frequented by Sydney Carton. Needless to say, I dined (and drank) with the spirit of greatness that evening.
And finally in my last of magical places for today, if any of you happen to be in or going to visit the London area, you should most definitely go see Dickens’s house, and not just for his writing desk that I’ve previously mentioned. It’s amazing (oh what an inadequate word) to see where one of the greats lived and worked, and I thought it appropriate to end with this site, especially since I’m going to close with Dickens’s words again. I love history (as you shall see in near future posts, if you haven’t gotten that impression already). But while I think it is so vital to remember the terrible, cruel, evil things that have been done throughout history (nod to George Santayana), I think it’s just as important not to forget the good things, the beautiful things, the acts of selflessness and kindness and love, that continue to keep us going, hoping, persevering through the darkness.
“Men who look on nature, and their fellow-men, and cry that all is dark and gloomy, are in the right; but the sombre colours are reflections from their own jaundiced eyes and hearts. The real hues are delicate, and need a clearer vision.”
-Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist