The day after we arrived in London, we packed up our belongings and stacked the luggage outside the Holiday Inn Express hotel where we’d stayed the night before. John pulled our rental car around from the parking area and we shoved everything that we could into the trunk and whatever was left into the back seat. We were grouchy and jetlagged and hadn’t really been properly nourished for at least 48 hours. The day began with a quick fight to vent all our frustrations before heading toward Windsor Castle.
I was in a bitter mood by the time we arrived at the castle. I was so tired and hungry that my stomach was upset and I was feeling wronged in-general by everyone. Inside my head a little voice commented judgmentally on people’s rudeness, their style of dress, and the audacity of their existence. I was put off by the pristine gardens and immaculate walkways leading up to the castle and couldn’t help but feel irritated by the mannequins wearing tall fuzzy black hats.
Hunger and exhaustion make it hard for me to appreciate tourist attractions.
After purchasing our tickets, we first wandered into a room in the castle full of Queen Mary’s dolls. A group of little girls in uniform from a private school were gathered around the exhibit which included a gigantic doll house replica of the royal quarters. The girls pressed their faces against the glass in awe to see the four story structure and all its intricacies. It was the first real encounter that we’d had with British culture. I wondered how many of the little girls in that room actually dreamed of being a princess–for real.
It was a small room and little girls surrounded us on all sides. John leaned over to me quietly and whispered, “What do the king and queen do in the U.K. anyway?”
“I don’t know.” I whispered back.
“Why are we so obsessed with the British royal family in the United States?” He asked. “I mean…since they don’t really do anything…that we know of.”
“I don’t know.” I said.
It was strange to me that I could have watched the progression of Princess Kate’s pregnancies on grocery store rags and I could know that she was having severe morning sickness, but not know really why a princess, prince, king, or queen is even necessary in British society.
We moved on to the next room which was filled floor-to-ceiling with expensive china sitting in gold leafed glass cases.
“I don’t like the china we already have…” John said with a high voice, mocking a British queen. He put his finger to his mouth effeminately. “Hmmmm…I think we need a new set.”
I had to agree that the extravagance was over-the-top. It was so over-the-top, in fact that for me, in my state of mind, it was hard to appreciate the collection without seeing the glaring problems associated with having 500 sets of very expensive china. Inevitably, if the royalty is spending money on things like china sets, there is no money for other things like the starving peasantry. And I have a hard time respecting the philosophies that lead to the collection of numerous sets of china which were not even being used except as display pieces.
I can understand the desire for extravagance. One could argue that it gives the common-folk something to strive toward and hope for, but there’s a fine line between creating an icon and creating more turmoil for followers. The French Revolution is a good example of how extravagance was taken too far. To me, Windsor Castle exemplified a culture that had walked along that thin line between giving people something to hope for and inspiring people to start chopping off heads.
We passed through the King’s Drawing Room, the Queen’s Drawing Room, the Green Dining Room, the Red Dining Room, the Reception Hall, and a smaller Reception Hall, an octagonal dining room, the King’s Bed Chamber, the Queen’s Bed Chamber. We saw very little of the castle in fact, but each room that we did see was filled to the gills with expensive artwork, rugs, and gold-leafed ceiling décor. I tried to be enchanted, but silently I was appalled. I’d like to believe that if I had enough money in my possession to build an imposing structure like Windsor Castle that I’d spread the wealth a little bit and create works that many people could enjoy, not just a few hand-selected individuals.
In many ways, Windsor Castle reminded me of the Forbidden City in Beijing. I had also tried at the Forbidden City to be enchanted, but to no avail. Punctuating an excessive amount of wide-open spaces in the crowded city of Beijing were big structures that had only occasionally been used by the royalty. If the emperor had wanted to think happy thoughts he’d be taken to one building where he’d sit on the throne there (or so it seemed). If he’d wanted to think serious thoughts he’d be taken to yet another building, and so on and so forth. It seemed like just a lot of hype to me.
Chinese people had flocked around the gated-off entrances to each of these buildings in the Forbidden City to take photos and catch a glimpse of the thrones and columns and expensive items inside each one. As John and I stood dispassionately at the threshold of each building at the Forbidden City, hordes of Asian people had crowded around us tightly for their much coveted peek.
“It makes me think of the storming of the Bastille…” I said to John across the top of the crowd, “…except without the fire.”
On the way out of Windsor Castle, I felt relieved to be finally moving toward our car, a snack, and the tiny vacation rental we’d call home for the next a few days. Lydian noticed St. George’s Cathedral up ahead along the sidewalk and she asked if we could go in.
“Oh, let’s go in.” I said finally with a heavy sigh. “It’s just a cathedral so we’ll go in and there’ll be pews and an altar and that’ll be it. Then we can go.”
Inside, the building was more complicated than the average cathedral. There were pews and an altar, but we followed a convoluted path through a collection of tombs, busts, and gravesites of English kings and queens throughout history.
I was glad that we’d decided to go into St. George’s Cathedral because on our way out we got to see King Henry VIII’s gravesite. As we stood over King Henry VIII’s grave, I found it hard to understand why this particular King mattered to me more than the others. He’d started the English Reformation by breaking off from the Roman Catholic Church mostly because he didn’t want a daughter to rule his kingdom (which made him a male chauvinist in my book). Also, he’d cut off his wives heads and there was a catchy song about him. It didn’t seem like enough of the right sorts of things for me to justify standing in awe and reverence over his grave. But stand in awe, I did.
I wondered about my reaction to King Henry VIII’s grave just as I wondered about my knowledge of Princess Kate’s morning sickness.
“It makes me feel important to have seen King Henry VIII’s final resting place.” I said, laughing. John agreed with me and we speculated about why small things seem big sometimes.
“It’s all about memorable stories and catchy lyrics, I suppose.” John said.
“And epic extravagance.” I added. “The kind of extravagance that makes people feel important just because they’re standing close to it.”
Windsor Castle and St. George’s Cathedral, London: Photo Gallery
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Stonehenge: A Place for Big Cats to Play — By Jennifer Shipp
Mason’s Yard at Great Bedwyn, Wiltshire UK — By Jennifer Shipp
Stonehenge, Salisbury, UK: Photo Gallery
First 36 Hours in the UK: Photo Gallery
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