Be warned: This blogpost – very much like this entire day – is a long one!
I’m beginning this at 10pm London time (2pm Arizona time) while sitting at my Airbnb flat’s dining room table with the terrace door open behind me so I can feel the fresh air and hear the sounds of the city.
It’s amazing because even though it’s dark, there’s still the faintest hint of light near the horizon… London summer days are long! Even though I woke up at 6am (11pm Arizona time), there wasn’t just a faint bit of light – there was tons of it. Sunrise here is before 5am!
(EDIT: I finished this blogpost a little after noon, 4am Arizona time!)
I got to my station at Golden Tours a little ahead of schedule which turned out to be great since it took some time to find the right bus. We headed off around 8:30am to Windsor Castle first, taking the bus out of London completely and heading into the seriously green English countryside.
And before I talk about Windsor… let me just get real here for a minute.
Even in the early morning today after a good night’s sleep, I was tired.
And to me it was finally a wakeup call about the reality of packing so many adventures into each day, or selecting quantity of quality, if you will.
Honestly, it was a wakeup call about who I am as a human being.
I’m sure there’s a little jet lag I’m getting over but really just the excitement of being here has been pushing me to walk miles each day, to travel literally all over the city via the Tube, to see everything my eyes could soak in before it’s time for me to go home. The excitement is still there and it will always be there – and not just about London, but about life in general, I think – but now the tiredness is sinking in.
And this trip has taught me more about a side of myself I think I have always known: that I am always trying to do more and I tend to think that no matter what I do in life, it’s not enough. I strive for perfection, which as we all know is a fruitless path as it just doesn’t exist. And while it’s good to want to be the best and do the most… there have to be limits. There has to be a time where you stop and say, “I’ve done all I can do, and it’s enough!” There has to be a time where you stop and say, “I am who I am, and I am good enough!”
So for the rest of my trip, I’m slowing down. And part of that starts tonight, where I can debrief and write about the whirlwind trip that was Windsor and Bath and – my favorite – Stonehenge. Where I can reflect and savor every moment that made today so amazing without hurriedly planning what I’m going to do tomorrow.
On the way to Windsor Castle our guide told us a little bit about its history. As a lover of English history, this was heaven for me. Apparently, Windsor Castle was built along with nine (?) other castles around the Tower of London so that if the Tower needed troops, they could be sent for within a day. He talked a bit about William the Conqueror’s defeat of the Anglo-Saxon King Harold during the Battle of Hastings (by “cheating” a bit, apparently) and how the new king set up the site for Windsor. It’s one of the oldest castles in England and apparently is still the summer home of Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth. Apparently, in 1992, a fire broke out in the castle and her own son, Prince Andrew, was among the heroes who dashed through the flames to save invaluable paintings and furniture.
That, by the way, is a leader to me. It got me thinking of the days kings rode into battle, leading their troops rather than command the forces from behind a desk. Someone who risks his or her life as much as – and even more than – those who follow.
We pulled up to Windsor and I was abruptly reminded of the touristy side of exploring when it took over an hour to get into the castle. My guide handed out our tickets and maps and we waited to get through the hefty security measures that many sites are imposing after the bombing in Manchester.
Another random thought that hit me as I stood in line: I think I’ve heard just about every language possible here (though I know I’m sure I haven’t yet heard hundreds)! It’s amazing to me how nearly everyone speaks at least two languages fluently. My tour group was so diverse – Chinese, Korean, German, Hindi, and other European dialects I didn’t recognize (probably Slovakian).
Then, finally, we made it inside.
It was absolutely stunning. I am always blown away by the fact that I get to walk in the steps of thousands before me, many of them such incredible influencers of history. And Windsor Castle is a thousand years old.
I loved seeing Windsor but I do wish it hadn’t been so touristy. Parts of the castle were blocked off that I would have loved to explore.
I couldn’t take pictures inside, where the state and private apartments were, but it was absolutely stunning and rich with detail from the paintings to the carpets to the cushioned seats to the engraved, painted ceilings. But again, there was a walkway tourists were to stick to and I was among hundreds of others listening to their audio guides.
There was the king’s bedchamber, his closet, his dressing room, the queen’s bedchamber and dressing rooms, the receiving rooms, the king’s writing room (adjacent to his bedroom), royal halls… My favorite was the long, narrow great room, with a thick red carpet and the walls lined with saluting suit of arms and the ceilings full of sigils that probably go back a thousand years. (I found a picture of it here if you’re curious!)
One thing I didn’t have time for was to make the Long Walk. But, another time!
We were told to get back to the bus by 11:40, so I was slightly stressed keeping an eye on the time. Again, I like to take my time with something as splendid like Windsor Castle.
Once we were back on the bus we started the hour-and-a-half long trek to Bath. I was so tired I fell asleep for a while. Then of course when I woke up I was even more tired and – unfortunately for me – slightly carsick. But, I powered through it and was happy when we drove through more gorgeous English countryside and into the historic town of Bath.
The Roman Baths plus the museum were interesting. When I’d selected the tour I did so because of Stonehenge and Windsor and honestly was not that excited about seeing the city of Bath, but it turned out to be intriguing. The Baths were built as a public bathing place on natural hot springs, and to this day the original architecture and aqueducts stand.
Our guide made it a point to tell us a) to be careful on centuries-old cobblestone uneven surfaces near the baths, and b) not to touch the water! I found it amusing that he immediately followed with, “But if you care to drink it, they sell small cups for 50 pence at the back of the restaurant.” (I didn’t spend 50 pence on a cup of gross, murky, god-knows-what’s-in-it water but I did make a wish on 50 pence and offer it to one of the fountains.)
Then again, by this point I still wasn’t feeling all that great (something I found ironic, because thousands of people would travel to Bath with diseases like leprosy or other ailments to be cured!), so I didn’t enjoy them as much as I could have. Plus, it was actually hot!
But then we got on the bus again and began another hour-and-a-half trek to our last destination (while I munched on some almonds to get something on my stomach – worked like a charm!). And this one, I’d been waiting to see for so, so long.
Let me have another moment of what I call getting real to explain how meaningful seeing Stonehenge was for me. And this time, this is a little more personal. But it’s relevant.
It was assumed by everyone I knew that my fiancé would be making this trip to London with me, and most were astonished when I said I’d insisted on going by myself. Because I quite honestly see this trip as a pilgrimage, if you will.
A time to just be. A time to just do things on my own and conquer my anxiety just like I did last time I was in London.
My friend from the ranch – who also recently got engaged and went through some of the same feelings I went through – recently lent me a book called The Conscious Bride. I’m not done with it yet but what I read on the plane really put things into perspective about what Western civilization has done to the life transition of getting married.
We’ve de-ritualized it. Weddings are no longer seen as a rite of passage but as large, expensive, detail-oriented parties that perfectly display the correct emotions of love and happiness and utter bliss.
Seriously though. From the moment a bride-to-be gets a ring on her finger, she is expected to be SO. BLISSFULLY. HAPPY. LIKE OMG OMG GONNA BE A MRS 4EVER!!!!!1 Everything has to be perfect, and any negative thought or concept that comes with a wedding is immediately combatted with, “Well then are you sure you’re meant to marry him/her??”
But the reality is, as this amazing book puts it, weddings are a rite of passage, and “all rites of passage – adolescence, the wedding, the birth of a child, a geographic move, a job change, midlife, old age – involve a transformation of identity as the initiate sheds the old way of like and makes way for the new role” (p. 12).
Women (and men) go through a separation phase, a transition phase, and an incorporation phase during their engagements because “If a rite of passage is to be complete, it must involve a letting go, a shedding, a separation, indeed, the death of the old identity before the new identity and the new life can take hold” (p. 17).
And now I understand the deeper complexity of my anxiety that returned with a vengeance upon getting engaged. The separation had begun. The Conscious Bride calls it the transition from ‘maiden’ to ‘wife’ and it’s one all brides must make if they so choose. And believe me, I so choose.
So this trip is a bit of a ritual for me. A time of transition and reflection and welcoming the new phase of life that is to occur.
As it happens, Stonehenge was a place of rituals, thousands and thousands of years ago. It was a place of many things. Maybe this was why as our bus got closer and closer to the site, I was filled with an anticipation that I couldn’t quite explain.
As our bus got closer and closer to the site, our tour guide talked briefly about the mystery of Stonehenge, and someone asked if it was ever truly known why it was created and for what purpose it was used.
“Ah,” the guide said. “Was it used to lay out the winter and summer solstices? To tell the stories of the stars? Aliens may look down at us today and wonder why humans are grouped around a bunch of rocks in the English countryside. No one knows.” And he smiled. “It can be whatever you want it to be.”
The countryside grew – if possible – even more magnificent as we drove closer. I was amazed by something so simple as the horizon between earth and sky. Such a stark, stunning contrast.
We parked the bus by the other coaches carrying tourists and our guide turned us loose, telling us to be back at 5:40. The parking site and visitor center/café/shop is a mile away from the actual site as so not to disturb such a sacred place, and free shuttle buses carried people back and forth.
I boarded a shuttle and watched the greenery go by, completely filled with anticipation and something else I couldn’t explain.
There are more than 80 rocks in the famous ring (you can see a map here). There’s also the Heel Stone about 250 feet away, which marks the spot on the horizon where the sun rises on the summer solstice. But the Stonehenge site isn’t just the main circle we see in pictures – it extends many meters around it. Recently, it was discovered that the mounds of earth around Stonehenge were actually burial sites, so the men and women who came before us must have found it important to have them buried in sight of the stones. But past being a burial site, the purpose of Stonehenge is not really known.
But as I eventually climbed off the shuttle bus and began my walk towards the stones, I realized that the possibilities were endless.
And that’s what makes them so magical.
It was more than awe I felt, looking at them, seeing something that thousands have seen and experienced and flocked to and have felt drawn to.
It was the energy of our ancestors who might have danced and sang and celebrated and mourned and birthed and died and healed around them. It was the possibility of miracles very much like somehow creating such a structure with impossibly heavy stone. It was the wildness of the human spirit that has sustained for over thousands of years, the wildness that still lives within us all.
I could have stayed there for forever and a day, and it wouldn’t have been enough time.
I wanted to soak up that magic forever. The wind – something I have long associated with the universe speaking to me – was blowing fiercely, and I wanted to stand and listen until Time ended.
It almost hurt to walk away from them. In the end, I took a few blades of grass from the earth next to the stones, then on the bus back to London I was struck with a horrible thought, which was what if it hadn’t been right to take something from such a sacred site for the selfish purpose of wanting something for myself?
I wondered for a long time, then I thought perhaps that those that came before me had taken roots and herbs and other plants from the grounds for selfless reasons like to cure the sick or to feed their families. So I am resolving to use those few blades of grass to keep as a reminder of the wild, mystical energy I felt at Stonehenge, to inspire it in others – perhaps myself most of all.
I think in our society we try too hard to focus on the good and push away the bad. Be positive, and wave away anything negative. Celebrate birth with enthusiasm, and grow quiet when it comes time to grieve death. Plan the big, fancy wedding, and push away the emotional roller coaster that comes with it. Begin the next chapter of your life, and don’t take time to let go of the last one.
Transitions in life come with joy and responsibility and sacrifice. Seeing Stonehenge in person was somehow a reminder that life events – birth, early adulthood, marriage, children, old age, death – are gifts life has been giving mankind since the dawn of time. Deep down, I think we all understand this – only in our rush from phase to phase, we lose sight of the importance of slowing down and taking it all in, both the good and the bad.
But we are made of stronger stuff than we realize. And it took staring at a bunch of rocks in the middle of the English countryside for me to realize it.
Was that the purpose of Stonehenge, to make hundreds of generations of humans reflect on their lives and the lives of those to come after them? Who knows.
But that’s their beauty and their power.
It can be anything we want it to be.