Disembarking from our plane in the UK, I am reminded that this is a civilized country, though we think that our limo driver believed that he was being paid by the word during our hour-plus-long drive to Stratford-Upon-Avon from the airport, never allowing more than an “Uuhha” or grunt on our part during his mind numbing, endless monologue. Nevertheless, civilized. The UK has its own issues with right-leaning politics, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the US’s verge hard right into the multi-ring circus lead by the traitorous idiot clown ringmaster who needs no introduction.
Evidence of civilization’s primacy is evident everywhere. Pervasive politeness and self-effacement, respect for personal privacy, and a wicked sense of humor are endemic. During our daily walks along the River Avon on public footpaths through farmers’ fields (where in America we’d be chased off by shotgun wielding yahoos), we encountered elderly—older than us by a passel of years—couples strolling holding hands or arm-in-arm, their ubiquitous dogs keeping cadence. Public rights-of-way are part of the Queen’s highway, and as such, through her fiat, allow most public access, a much different set of rules from America’s property fanaticism . . . civilized.
As is my wont, having watched the BBC TV series Time Team, I was keenly aware that farmers’ fields are not always what they seem, but may hold hidden archeological secrets dating back in layers: Edwardian, Victorian, Georgian, Stuart, Tudor, Medieval, Dark Ages, Roman, Prehistoric. Cognizant of this deep history, I continually scanned the perimeters of the fields as we walked along footpaths for artifacts of past civilization, rewarded, thanks to tractor tilling, by several pieces of possibly Victorian or earlier dish and cup shards.
It’s fascinating how the landscape changes over the millennia. Traveling back in time only requires digging down through wind scattered soil and organic decomposition. Reaching the Roman and prehistoric epochs often requires trenches 6–8 feet in depth. The earth around us is a semi-closed history book, only requiring its pages be turned to reveal her secrets.
Seven years ago we passed through this same terrain, not on land, but via canals lacing the countryside, in narrow boats just inches wider than six feet and more than 30 feet long. Our daily several-mile walk along the Avon River brings us past three or four river locks that we had crossed during our previous float trip, and the memory of working the lock mechanisms rushed back immediately, parallel pathways with entirely different perspectives.
We recalled one particular series of locks, two and a quarter miles long, with 220 feet of elevation, that required almost an entire day to traverse. Thankfully, pubs were interspersed along the route. Again I will say . . . civilized.
One of our public way hikes took us past Holy Trinity Church, Shakespeare’s burial place, and we stopped in to pay our respects.
Churches and cathedrals here are a wonder to explore, embedded within them continual occupation and reverence dating back, in many cases, a thousand years or more. Again, hidden within plain sight lie layers of history, culture, architecture, politics, drama, and much more. We’ve spent entire days crawling through narrow passageways, up dizzying spiral staircases lined with ancient graffiti, down into dark and damp crypts, noting stone mason inscriptions tagging their master work, into bell towers and roof tops, pulling up carpets to shine flashlights into semi-exposed tombs and reading floor grave marker inscriptions worn thin by hundreds of thousands of feet. This brings new meaning to the old saying that when we feel a shiver suddenly pass through our body, someone is walking on our grave.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s home is here in Stratford, an amazing artistic and physical edifice and our primary reason to lodge ourselves in adjacent proximity. What more can be said about the vast depth and breadth of Shakespeare’s works, and how many ways they can be interpreted in language, society, and culture? One definition of civilization is the network of economic, political, military, diplomatic, social, and cultural interactions, ideally in balance. The genius of Shakespeare’s plays interconnects this framework through the drama of human condition, and we, like so many countless others, are drawn to this beacon of wisdom emanating from the RSC here, and the Globe in London, another stop on our cultural pilgrim trail.