by Amanda Landwehr / Arts & Culture Editor
This week’s column is going to be a ranty, unorganized mess. But since there seems to be little to no structure or order to the world right now, I’m applying that same notion to my writing. So buckle in — this is going to be a long one (you’ve got time to spare).
I’m still in London, my classes have been moved online, and I plan on staying here until the end of my housing contract. True to the British mentality of “keep calm and carry on,” Londoners seem to be refreshingly composed about the COVID-19 situation. The U.K. is expected to go into lockdown in the near future, but for now, young people are still picnicking on Primrose Hill and walking their dogs around the neighborhood. It’s a nice contrast to the U.S, where panic-buyers are lining up around the block at Costco and Target. If this virus outbreak isn’t highlighting the stark differences between the U.S. and the rest of the world, I don’t know what will.
As a final “pre-fleeing the country” hurrah, my friends and I took a weekend trip down to Canterbury, a prehistoric cathedral city located in Southeastern England. Originally inhabited by a Celtic tribe throughout the Bronze Age, the area was captured by the Romans in the first century AD and named “Durovernum Cantiacorum.” The city quickly became an epicenter for Roman trade and culture, but was eventually abandoned when the Romans left Britain around 410. Within the next century, an Anglo-Saxan community formed in the area, and Pope Gregory the Great sent Augustine to convert the town to Christianity. Canterbury Cathedral was founded in 597, and after the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket at the cathedral in 1170, Canterbury became a destination for Christian pilgrims wishing to visit his shrine. To this day, the Cathedral remains one of the most visited in Europe and was named a World Heritage Site in 1988.
After a two hour train ride through the English countryside, we dropped off our bags at the Cathedral Gate Hotel. Our hotel had a compelling history of its own — a known record of travellers resting at the exact site dates back to the time of Ethelred the Unready (866-871).
We hopped onto yet another train and rode to the ferry port city of Dover. Famously recognized for its chalk-stained seaside cliffs, we felt a quick excursion was in order. The city lies on the narrowest part of the English Channel, the Strait of Dover. On a clear day, France can be seen from across the water.
First on our itinerary was a visit to Dover Castle, which was one of my favorite landmarks thus far. We took a bus to the top of the cliffs since the steep, uphill walk seemed less than appealing. Once we stepped off the bus, I took a deep breath of fresh, seaside air — London has some of the most polluted air in the world, so the clean oxygen was much appreciated by my lungs.
We wandered around the castle grounds which were constructed as early as the Iron Age as Roman and eventually Saxon forts. The site features one of three surviving Roman lighthouses in the world and is thought to be the oldest-standing building in Britain. Henry II expanded on the construction of the actual castle from 1179 to 1188, and the towering structure acted as a fortification from the Napoleonic Wars all the way to World War II. Needless to say, my inner history geek was overjoyed.
The castle closed for the day, and my friends and I wandered outside of the castle grounds, waiting for nearly 20 minutes in hopes of catching the bus or a taxi. We wanted to get some sort of view of the White Cliffs but were stranded in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sheep and grassy fields. At this point, I was ready to give up on the idea of seeing the cliffs and head back to the train station. Completely by chance, a taxi drove past us as the driver dropped off a couple of tourists. He agreed to take us on a special tour of the White Cliffs, which ended up being an incredible experience.
It turned out that this taxi driver was a full-fledged tour guide, and he drove us up and down the cliffs while giving us a brief history of the area. He let my friends and I get out in the small village of St. Margaret’s at Cliffe, and we walked along the grass-lined clifftops, fully captivated by the natural beauty of the chalk-white boulders and the rocky shoreline.
There was something about seeing those great white cliffs, towering over the gentle gray-blue waves of the water, that brought a profound sense of awareness to my mind. If even the English Channel appeared calm, maybe I could find peace in this chaos. There’s always something bigger than yourself in this wild and expansive world, and maybe it takes a little bit of slowing-down to recognize that.
Exhausted and a bit wind-blown from our day by the sea, we took the train back to Canterbury and ate dinner at the nearby pub. Unfortunately, the day took a turn for the worse when my friends received an email from their study abroad program informing them that they had to leave the U.K. as soon as possible.
Logically, we walked to the nearest Tesco and bought liquor and other various comfort foods as my friends prepared to spend all night on hold with airline representatives. Thankfully, they were both able to find flights back to the U.S. in the coming week, but it certainly put a damper on our weekend. I already knew that the two of them had to fly back to their respective homes at some point, but I anticipated having at least another week with them in London. However, we chose to savor the last bit of our time together and had a relaxing night in the solace of our quirky hotel room, trying to laugh about the complete absurdity of the situation.
One of my friends took an early train back to London on Sunday morning in order to pack up her belongings. My other friend and I stayed in Canterbury for the day and started our day by visiting the Roman Museum and the cathedral. We went for afternoon tea, and snacked on freshly-baked scones. After a walk along the River Stour, we then walked up into the Westgate Towers, a medieval entrance into the city that once held Canterbury’s most notorious prisoners.
Looking out onto the old brick buildings and tiled rooftops, I smiled. It was sunset, indicating that our time in Canterbury was coming to an end. With our luggage packed and our shoes muddied from spending the last two days outdoors, we walked back to the station and hopped on a train back to London.
As of yesterday, I’m one of the only American exchange students left at my London university. It was heart-wrenching to wave goodbye to my friends after surviving the near-apocalypse together, but Flavia (my flatmate) and I plan on waiting this thing out together with the help of Netflix, board games and wine. Some people have questioned my decision to stay, but hey — that wild unpredictability is exactly what the spirit of adventure is all about (and yes, I’m staying safe).
If the coronavirus outbreak has reinforced one of my personal philosophies, it’s this: to live everyday like it’s your last. Seriously — it’s cliche, but rings so true when our humanity is put into question. If you know me, you know that I will always ask my friends to go for half-priced appetizers at Applebee’s, see a movie or even embark on some spontaneous trip. Call it FOMO or just a general disregard for saving money, but in times like these, I’m glad for every taco date, every vacation and every face-to-face conversation I’ve ever had.
After this past weekend, I realized how history has a funny way of reminding me that everything is going to be alright. It’s in our human nature to rebuild, just as the Saxons did in Canterbury. During our walk back to the train station, I looked back at the Westgate Towers and at the ruins of what was once a great castle. This was a city that witnessed the Iron Age, the Black Death, and even saw the construction and collapse of a Roman city — and survived through all of it. So if these old brick buildings which have seen the faces of pilgrims, royals and Roman soldiers are still standing, people can too. So, stop buying 50 rolls of toilet paper, keep calm and carry on.