We have been walking for six days with only two days left to go. We have crossed the North Wessex Downs from Avebury to Streatley, crossed the rain-swollen Thames River and are now passing through the Chiltern Hills, all designated as areas of outstanding natural beauty. Here are a few of the places we have visited including Wayland’s Smithy, a neolithic barrow and White Horse Hill, site of the Uffington White Horse chalk monument. The weather has been fantastic with Sunday the warmest day in Britain since last summer. Overall the students are tired but happy and enjoying every minute (except for the sore feet). They will post more reflections as we have time.
The wisdom of the dead
The sublime high ceilings as well as the stunning Gothic style made it hard for me to breathe. Since the 11th century, Westminster Abbey has been an honorary place of coronation and burial for many generations of the British royal family. This is the place of ultimate peace and rest for nobles whose monuments are decorated with elaborate patterns and exquisite symbols. Each monument was a masterpiece of art worth examining, but my attention was immediately drawn to the modest side plates with the names of outstanding masters of writing. There, the tourists walk over the stone slabs with inscriptions on them. These inscriptions carry great names such as Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and Jane Austen; the names of those who made English literature the way we know and love it today. At first, it is hard to believe that this place was not originally designed as a burial place for writers. Indeed, Geoffrey Chaucer, the first poet to be buried in the Abbey was given this honorable place not because of his famous work Canterbury Tales, but due to his position as a Clerk of Works in the Palace of Westminster. Only later were other outstanding writers buried under the same roof of Westminster Abbey.
In fact, many of the burials were quite controversial. For example, CS Lewis’s ambiguous religious symbolism in the Chronicles of Narnia made the question of his burial in the Abbey quite contested. The same controversy occurred with Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, the Brontë sisters, and many other writers.
Nevertheless, I highly doubt that any of these brilliant minds were ever concerned about earning a place among the monarchs and knights. Most of them lead humble lives without ever knowing that they were destined to become immortalized in the walls of one of the most important religious monuments in the world.
This made me think. The first thing that came to mind as I was walking through Poet’s Corner was an overwhelming desire to become one of them—to become someone whose name will be suitable for a place like Westminster Abbey. I dreamed of having my own quote written right under the dates of my lifetime; I imagined a little girl stepping on the stone slab with my name, as her mother tells her about some brilliant book that that I was an author of. These thoughts made me both extremely excited and enormously ashamed of my own self. Ignominious motives like this one are a secure way to an unhappy, inglorious life. I do not want to be like Capitan Ahab from Moby Dick who spent all his life chasing some meaningless and poisonous dream, nor do I want to remind people of Dorian Grey who lost the meaning of life looking strictly at his reflection in the mirror.
The only way to live a noble life is to do great things without expecting too much in response. To write for the sake of writing. To live for the sake of living. Suddenly my eyes fell on the inscription on the corner. A quote by Dylan Thomas said,
“Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
This made me realize something of importance. My passion is not simply the key to what I desire to attain, but it is itself what I desire in life. I want to raise my quill because I want to write, but not because I want to be buried at Westminster Abbey. I just have to learn how to enjoy the journey without thinking too much of the end product. I have to learn how to walk through the places noticing unusual signs on the road, people on the terraces and their surroundings; to walk through the world capturing the moment, without any concern for our final destination.
On March 3rd we went to Stonehenge. We were very lucky that day. Most people are only able to see Stonehenge from far away, but we were able to get very close to it. When I walked around the stones, I was amazed. It is so grand. It is hard to think about how our ancestors could build it without cranes or other machines. The marks on the stones show the passing of time. Stonehenge was built around 2000 B.C. to measure time, but after about 4000 years, the stones are still standing there watching the world change. They are witnesses of the development of humankind.
Today is Mar.3rd. We have been in London for over a week, but in some ways the journey has just started. From our hotel to the Stonehenge area was a miles-long road that we needed to walk along. The landscape on the way was quite amazing, photos of which quickly filled my phone album. Within minutes thick mud had encased all our shoes. And it rained. Rain continuously poured on us, seeming enjoying this little trick with soaking the walkers. What an unlucky day, I thought.
We finally reached Stonehenge. Although the uncomfortable wet clothing affected the enthusiasm, I should still say, it was very impressive to see such an engineering miracle that was built over 4000 years ago.
We walked back through fields full of sheep. The annoying rain came again. But this time the dark clouds remained distant from us. Raindrops thinly scattered onto the ground. With the sun shining on us, this rain was harmless and also warm. The sky gradually turned to azure. Sunlight sketched two arcs in the air. The double rainbow appeared. The rain stopped, leaving this lighting gift to us.
It was a day. But I know that bad luck never entangles a person for one’s whole life. Life is like the weather, once the time has come, the storm would finally disappear and instead, what replaces it is the shiny, warm, pleasant rainbow.
I check for three things when I leave my room every day: wallet, phone and headphones. It is so common that everyone, both the young and the old, wear their headphones when they walk, read, or take a nap on the subway. I do not know their reasons for listening to music every minute, however, for me I just want the world to be quieter by keeping all the sounds out of my head.
There is no doubt that the world is too noisy these days. The hubbub of traffic, the clamor of crowds, and amorphous racket makes it difficult to stay calm. As a result, we got used to wearing headphones in chaos. However, due to the “overuse” of my phone on the fifth day we got London, my phone was soon out of battery that day. I had no way to listen to my dear songs and had to feel the tumult instead. Things always defy expectations; I gained the benefit of taking off my headphones that day.
While we walked along the towpath of the Regent’s Canal to Camden Town, I suddenly heard a delightful song accompanied by guitar. Then I saw two buskers singing on the path. They were not well dressed but they were really joyful, as you can see the big smiles on their faces. I was quite moved by this unexpected sight and suddenly discovered some tiny pleasure in my life. I was exhausted that morning but I felt light on my feet all of a sudden. It sounds odd, I know, but sometimes I just can be cheered up easily. At the same time, I realized that headphones not only prevented some noise, but some joy as well; we lock ourselves in our own little world the moment we plug in our headphones. In fact, tons of happiness is in dribs and drabs in the outer world.
Since that day, I began to take off my headphones from time to time and found a lot of happiness in London, especially from the buskers in Underground stations. I know it must be the same that there are buskers all over, please at least take off your headphones when you walk past them. They may not force you to give them money, but they are eager for your respect. Trust me, you will enjoy the moments without your headphones.
Late in the evening we walked on Tower Bridge over to Bankside, an area along the south bank of the Thames River. To me, traveling back to the north side was far more exciting. In order to get back to the City of London we could have crossed back over Tower Bridge but instead we walked the Millennium Bridge. It is the steel suspension bridge that opened in 2000 and then closed because of its unsettling wobbling movement. The bridge reopened two years later and is now used by both Londoners and tourists. The bridge is in a stunning location; if you are coming from the South Bank you can look to your right and see both London Bridge and Tower Bridge, as well as the Shard, a new building which is now the tallest structure in western Europe. Looking directly across the river there is the most perfectly framed view of Saint Paul’s Cathedral and behind you is the Tate Modern art museum and the Globe Theater, a recreation of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan theater. Everywhere you look there is a landmark of London from a different time period. The most shocking part for me is the journey from new to old, on one side the Tate Modern, and directly across is St. Peter’s, a seamless transition between two completely different eras. As you climb up the steps to cross the bridge, above you looms the Tate Modern, the most visited modern gallery in the world. It used to be an old power station originally constructed in the 1940’s and later the abandoned building was redone as a contemporary art museum. Then as you walk over the Millennium Bridge, St. Paul’s, designed in the 17th century, is directly in view and you move into a very different place and state of mind. Suddenly the feeling of a modern industrial city fades away and one finds oneself in a grand and elegant earlier place. I think the transition between time periods truly represents the architecture of present-day London. The city is so diverse that wherever you walk there is bound to be a combination of buildings from the past to the present. People have lived here on the banks of the Thames for the past five thousand years. From Neolithic tribes to the Romans of Londinium, from the kings and queens of the Medieval period to the bustling crowds of the modern era, London continues to constantly change and evolve.
On the fifth day, we went to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was one of the most famous churches in the world. It was built in the English Baroque style, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and it was rebuilt after the Great Fire of London. I was not interested in visiting churches, however, when I came to St. Paul’s Cathedral, I was amazed by it’s magnificent and subtle form. It was the tallest building in 17th century London, with a height of 365 feet and a length of 518 feet. Inside it has a big mural painting, which used three dimensions on the ceiling and a saucer-shaped dome. Later, we climbed up to the top of the dome by narrow and spiral stairs; I was so tired and scary that I wanted to give up in the middle of climbing. However, when I climbed up to the dome, I found that it is worth it for me to climb up there. I can see most of London from here, such as Tower Bridge, the London Eye and many high, modern buildings surrounding the church. It is hard to imagine it used to be the tallest building in London. In the church’s basement there were many important people’s tombs. It was a great experience for me. I learned the history and saw pictures from the Internet about St. Paul’s, but it was very different actually going to the church. By visiting St. Paul’s, I saw the paintings and the sculptures up close and felt the religious environment there and now I really know how magnificent it is and know why it is one of the most famous churches in the world.
Man Li Gao
We will post more information about the walk when we have better internet access but for now here are some images from the first day of the hike, a massive 17 mile(!!!) walk from Avebury to Ogbourne St. George. Really, really tired people at the end! All is well except for some blisters and sore feet. The weather remains beautiful and spirits remain positive.
This gallery contains 9 photos.