Monday, February 19, 2007

Harlaxton Adventures -- Lincoln, Harlaxton Manor Tour, Grantham Visit, and Visiting Katrina in Grenoble (France)

February 5, 2007: It's been exactly one month since my arrival at Harlaxton -- a place of great beauty and charm. "Gregory Built This Perfectly" says the stonework (in Latin) on the facade of the manor, and I really can't think of a better description. Towering high on a hill and overlooking all of the "plebeian" fields and houses below, Harlaxton has a kingly air to it; moreover, intricately built and surrounded by charming gardens and sculptures, Harlaxton is majestic. Whether lit up by the sun in the day, or whether rising out of the darkness at night, the Manor exerts a powerful presence on all it surveys. "Gregory Built This Perfectly" -- he truly did!

But the Rambling Rover cannot lie dormant forever within the poet: even amidst this splendor -- surrounded by a perfect manor with gorgeous sunsets and its beautiful gardens -- I longed to travel. In the two weeks and weekends following the London trip, I journeyed to the peaceful town of Lincoln, took a guided house tour of Harlaxton, went on a walking tour of Grantham, and later enjoyed hiking and downhill-skiing with Katrina in Grenoble, France. Join me!

* * *

Lincoln: a city on a hill. Lincoln was a required trip for the British Studies class, so we had a guided tour of Lincoln Cathedral, Lincoln Castle, and central (historical) Lincoln, which was most wonderful. Our trip began by walking around Lincoln and looking at old remains of Roman buildings. Lincoln was actually established as a military "colonia" of the Romans; when the Romans left, the Normans built right on top of the Roman remains. We saw a Roman arch, a few defensive walls, and aqueducts, but much of the Roman legacy, alas, rests eight feet below ground.

The Roman walk, with its spread-out artifacts, set the stage for a rather amusing, and totally random, story:
As my friend Steve and I stood looking at a Roman wall, he unzipped my coat. "Oh no!" -- I exclaimed. "Look what you did, Stevio! Now I'll get hypothermia and die, and you'll have to explain to Katrina the cause of my death". Steve considered that for a moment, and then turned to me with a sweet devilish smile: "Ok, I'll tell her. [pause] Is she hot?"

Taken aback -- (Steve has a girlfriend, by the way) -- I zipped my coat and plotted sweet revenge. The opportunity presented itself perfectly ten minutes later, when our group stopped for a moment at a Roman aqueduct. Steve was leaning on a gate into someone's backyard when, with a loud creak, it accidentally opened. Trying to look small and entirely unrelated to the cause of the gate's opening, Steve closed the gate and stepped aside, an embarrassed expression on his face. "Don't worry", I consoled Steve with all the compassion that I could muster: "I'll let Kirstin know exactly which gate you were trying to break into when you got arrested... [pause, sweet smile] Is she hot?"
After the walk, Steve and I ate lunch and then meandered about the town for an hour or so. Lincoln had a definite charm to it: from its small size, to its semi-crooked buildings, to the ivy crawling on many old sites, the town was a living history. Afterwards, we joined the group and walked about the castle, built in 1068 AD (though little of its original walls remain today). However, the highlight and the culmination of the whole trip was, undoubtedly, Lincoln Cathedral.

A Cathedral: "A House for God", as Dr. Kingsley explained it in his lecture. "And if God is mighty and powerful, surely His House must be very fine indeed".

Yes, Lincoln Cathedral was a VERY fine House. Standing at the top of the hill, the Cathedral soared above the city's skyline, reaching out (and, seemingly, almost touching) heaven. "If you've not known what beauty is, there it is, slapping you in the face", exclaimed Dr. Bujak as we stood, awestruck, in front of it. Lincoln Cathedral was majestically built: started by the Normans in 1072 (as seen by the big round arches), it was later given a more gothic and decorative style through pointed arches, more stained glass windows, and flying buttresses. Countless statues (of saints, kings, and even little devils (!) ) were carved into the side of the cathedral. Even by modern-world standards the Cathedral is a wonder of engineering and attention to miniscule details, inspiring reverence and fear; to the relatively primitive native inhabitants of Lincoln of the 11th century, such a Cathedral must have been the very proof of God's irrefutable power!

The inside of the Cathedral was just as spectacular. Entering from the western end, we walked through a long beautiful gallery towards a wonderfully-decorated nave. Colorful light shone through the stained-glass windows on the south side of the Cathedral, each depicting a biblical story. The Cathedral's galleries were filled with even more sculptures of saints, contrasting sharply with nearby demonic spirits dragging debauched souls into hell. The windows, the sculptures, the crucifix floor-plan of the cathedral -- all were built with high symbolism in mind, designed to awe the illiterate populace into accepting a sharp division between the forces of good and evil. For the toiling peasants, the church must have seemed like heaven on earth, while the world in which they labored was nothing more than a pained and hell-like existence. Eternal Heaven -- a world with never-ending Sundays and rest and choral singing and splendor -- would indeed have seemed like a very lucrative prospect. Moreover, Heaven was accessible by all, rich and poor alike: as one sculpture graphically depicted, a rich man's body decayed just as quickly as that of a poor. Wealth and possession in this world played no part in the bliss of the next; it was the soul that mattered. Saving souls: that's what this Cathedral -- this House of God -- was truly about.

* * *

The following week I took a guided house-tour of Harlaxton. Though I had already seen most of the accessible parts of the manor on my own, hearing the history of the manor was absolutely fascinating! Harlaxton was built in the 1830s by the bachelor Gregory Gregory, whose whole life was devoted to his manor and his travels (during which he would collect masterpieces and artifacts for his dream home). Most of the small artifacts were taken out of the manor when it was sold; however, many of the larger artifacts (or artifacts built into the house) still remain today. For example, the buffet table in the state dining room was once a marble alter over an Italian sarcophagus; one of the doors in the manor has ornate Turkish decorations; the Grand Staircase is made of very fine and expensive cedar, with huge mirrors on the sides of the staircase to make the manor appear even bigger. Another interesting touch to the Grand Staircase is a pair of sculptures on its ceiling: floating amidst painted clouds, one man proudly holds a flag with a picture of a castle on it (quite symbolic of "Gregory Built This Perfectly"); the other holds a scythe, cynically reminding us of the frailty and insignificance of our lives and our creations.

Traditionally, the costs of building and maintaining a manor were paid through farming wheat on the manor estate; when prices of local wheat dropped due to competition from America, manors all throughout the UK became financial burdens for their owners. Harlaxton was already too big for the modest size of its land, so after WWI -- with no prospect of revenue and with increasing maintenance costs -- a painful decision was made by one of Gregory's descendants to demolish the Manor. At the very last moment, however, a wealthy -- albeit eccentric -- lady rescued Harlaxton. Aside from saving the Manor from demolition, she bought a spectacular chandelier for the Great Hall and added two lion sculptures to the gardens. In addition, she attempted to introduce a ghost to Harlaxton, holding séances to awaken the spirit of her dead husband. To the knowledge of the Harlaxton staff, however, no "official" ghost currently resides in the Manor...

In the 1960s, running into financial troubles, Van der Elst sold the manor to a society of Jesuits, who used the Manor as a training center for priests. Unfortunately, to prevent priests from getting distracted by paintings of half-dressed female angels on the Long Gallery ceiling, the Jesuits had the ceiling whitewashed and painted over with a rather bland image of the sky. Some twenty years later, Harlaxton was acquired by an American businessman William Ridgeway, who bestowed it upon the University of Evansville. Thus, the artistic loss of the Long Gallery ceiling has also been a grievous loss for the students, who would certainly have benefited from the half-dressed angels during early-morning British Studies lectures...

Some other interesting facts that I learned about the manor concerned its architecture. The Manor was originally built in a Victorian style, but half-way through the building process, Gregory switched to a more ornate Elizabethan style. Curiously, Harlaxton was specifically designed to separate owners from servants: thus, the servant headquarters were put in the basement, from which hidden staircases and back-door entrances allowed servants to access any room without disturbing the owners. Another interesting tidbit about the Manor was the inclusion of a "birth bell" in the bell tower of Harlaxton; that bell, probably due to the single and/or Jesuit nature of the Manor's previous owners, has never been rung...

* * *

That same week, I also went on a walking tour through the old streets of Grantham. The highlight of the trip was visiting St. Wulfram's Church, built in the 12th century. When the steeple was completed in 1300, the church became the highest building in medieval England, and even now its height is quite impressive. An interesting recent touch to the church has been the addition of several modern stained-glass windows. Not only are the new windows much brighter than their Elizabethan predecessors, but the images drawn on them are more vivid and free. Colorful and abstract, they add a beautiful contrast to the otherwise monumental and traditional feel of the church.

* * *

But enough of history! The weekend after my Lincoln visit and the ensuing historical tours, I traveled to Grenoble, France, to visit Katrina. I flew with RyanAir -- a cheap airline that specializes in inter-European flights -- and was actually quite impressed with the comfort of their airplanes and the level of their service. Katrina met me at the airport, and after we took a series of buses and trams, we reached the home of her host family.

There were still several hours of daylight remaining when I arrived; after dropping off my stuff, Kat and I went hiking on a trail that started right next to her host-family's house. At first, the mountain views were spoiled by an excessively sprawled-out city below, but within half-an-hour we reached a much more secluded area. There, the trail passed through a mountain valley surrounded by trees, with near-vertical cliffs rising sharply on both sides. As we followed the trail, a wondrous sight reached our eyes.

A kingdom of icicles! Never in my life had I seen so many icicles clinging onto the side of a mountain! Some icicles were as long as 3-4 feet, looking like sharp massive missiles frozen in mid-air. Nearly all had water dripping from them, so the sound of thousands of water droplets hitting the rocks below was absolutely magical and surreal. Katrina and I found a small cave at the side of a cliff, and, despite precarious icicles perched right above its opening, we stepped in. From there, all we could see were icicles and water droplets, illuminated by the evening sun. It was beautiful. Huddled for warmth, we sat there for a long time, until the dimming pink shades of nearby mountains reminded us that it was time to head back...

Back at the house, I met Katrina's host family, who lived in a neat and cozy home in the suburbs of Grenoble. The mother did not speak English, but she was very welcoming towards me, kindly allowing me to stay at her house for the next two nights. She was also a great cook, preparing an excellent meal for me and Katrina before heading off to a concert and bidding us goodnight.

The following morning, with skis and boots in hands, Katrina and I left for a ski resort. It took nearly four hours to get to the resort (and I thought Alaska had spread-apart distances!), but, once there, the ensuing skiing definitely made the journey worth the trouble. The ski resort was huge, resting high upon several mountains of formidable altitude; it included approximately fifty chairlifts, with slopes of all difficulty levels and sizes. The day proved to be excellent in every regard -- from blue-skied weather, to moderate temperatures, to plentiful snow, to the excellent skis that I borrowed from a friend -- but even more impressive were the views of endless mountains glimmering in the sun. Beauty -- boundless, limitless, natural beauty! ... and Katrina there with me to share in its glory!

Since this was only Kat's third time skiing, we went on gentler slopes at first. I would typically "straight-line" towards a bottom of a hill and then watch the views for a little while till Katrina caught up, and then we'd repeat the cycle. This system actually worked quite well: the skiing would satisfy the adventurous Rambling Rover within me, while the watching would gratify the poet. In the afternoon, as Katrina got much better at skiing and as I had had my share of watching Beauty, we went on a series of increasingly exhilarating and challenging runs before heading back home.

The ski resort's mountains left me impressed with the French landscape; a dinner conversation with Kat's English-studying host sister left me likewise impressed with the French people. But, while I would have loved to stay longer, and while I definitely intend to visit Katrina in Grenoble again, the upcoming beginning of another school week beckoned me to return. On Sunday morning, bidding my love farewell, I took another Ryan Air flight from Grenoble to Stanstead airport (outside London), and several hours later found myself back at the Grantham train station. Unlike my past experience with that station, when I had walked through a rainy nigh for half-an-hour before finally managing to get a ride from a pizza man, this day was still young and pleasant. I thus decided to save some money by walking to the Manor as opposed to taking a cab. The pathway was mostly un-scenic as it lay alongside a loud motorway; non-the-less, as I entered Harlaxton village (the land below Harlaxton, where peasants once used to live), the magnificent Manor again came into view. Harlaxton! -- so much does it now feel like home! And, as I walked towards it, I couldn't help repeating to myself the proud but veritable declaration on the Manor's facade: "Gregory Built This Perfectly"!
"I must away, love -- I can no longer tarry.
This morning's tempest I have to cross.
I will be guided without a starlight,
Now that the long night has turned to day."

(from "The Night Visitor's Song" by Empty Hats)

- Michael

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