Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sojourns of Fancy.

First off, everyone should know I didn't make it to the White Horse.

I know, I know. You had to read that whole whining post. I'm sorry. But there are a few reasons why I decided against trekking into the English wilderness:

  1. Snow flurries! Wonderful! The first snow of the season is always one of my favorite things (cue song?), but not ideal for a trip to the countryside.
  2. Gerard, who I was trusting to coach me in breathing when/if we got lost, couldn't accompany me because he had a important Ultimate Frisbee Tournament. Because, you know, he plays for the Oxford Blues. The University team onto which you must be invited to play, by the current captains. Which is not a big deal, except…it is. Since he neglected to mention this fact to me until recently, I decided to practice my 'being supportive' rendition and go to his tournament instead. I also was very realistic about the potential negative consequences of going to White Horse alone, not excluding ending up in a field shivering and surrounded by sheep (this is a recurring nightmare of mine). Standing on the sidelines while a few attractive guys toss around a frisbee was, I think, a reasonable alternative.
    1. Also, I think I should mention here that I was accompanied to this match by TYLER ROBERTS. TYLER ROBERTS, are you reading this? Everyone, TYLER ROBERTS came with me to the frisbee match, and we got hot chocolate on the way, and did star jumps (jumping jacks, for you Americans) to keep warm, and he was the best & most fun fellow spectator there could possibly be. That was TYLER ROBERTS, for those of you that may have missed it.

But the final and most important reason why I didn't make it to White Horse is……………………….

  1. On Sunday, I went and saw Jane Austen's house, and let me tell you, I ended up needing every ounce of physical and mental stamina I could muster.

There are a few reasons for this. Of course one of which is the fact that, come on, folks, let's be honest: you know it takes a lot of energy to grovel (read: lay prostrate on the ground) in worship on the threshold of one of the most revered writers in the literary canon. But there's more than that.

Let's start with the journey getting to Janie.

On Thursday night, I booked train tickets for Aidan and me. Aidan is a fellow Austen Aficionado (I do love me some alliteration) and, much to my soaring happiness, agreed to come with me to find the house, even though she will be here for the year and has plenty of time to travel around without crazy people such as myself.

We met up in Tesco's bright and early Sunday morning, to pick up breakfast (which ended up meaning: Cadbury, Mars Bars, Starburst, etc). It's a beautiful day, sunny, and -7° Celsius. So, that's more than a little cold, but we're optimistic. From this point, however, I think it will be more helpful if I provide a play-by-play:

9:01 – We board our train, first of four on the outward bound journey (since Jane Austen I guess lived in the middle of freaking nowhere), at the Oxford Railway Station. There is no heat on this train. Aidan: "Do you think it's cold? I think it's cold." Me: "I can see my breath in here. It's cold."

9:20 – The train stops dead on the tracks about 3 stops from our transfer station because 'we are waiting for a train in front of us to move.' It turned out to be a train full of rocks. That did not move for forty minutes. Subsequently, Aidan and I miss our connecting train at Reading to Basingstoke.

10:00 – We wander clumsily (since all of our extremities are frozen) through the Reading station. We find an information desk, where a woman helpfully prints out some…information on optional connecting trains to our final destination (Alton). We immediately find coffee because we've discovered that Britons do not believe in indoor heating: we can still see our breath in the train station, probably since the doors were propped open and there's a bitter wind whipping up through the main concourse.

10:37 – We board a train allegedly heading for Basingstoke, the site of our second transfer. This train is warm (thank goodness), but is not moving at the appropriate time.

10:47 – A National Rail employee walks through the train carriages: "We're running a bit behind schedule. The train conductor didn't turn up for work this morning."

10:47:30 – Aidan and I exchange horrified glances.

10:48 – The station announces the train will not be leaving, but that there is a train departing for Basingstoke immediately a few tracks over. Cue more running with frozen extremities.

10:49 – Aidan and I make our train, successfully make it from Basingstoke to our next stop, Brookwood, and then also successfully make it onto our train to Alton. As the journey wears on, however, we begin to note the following things:

    The train is getting emptier and emptier with each successive stop.

    We are rumbling through countryside. Roads turn into fences, fields, sheep, etc. Things are looking more and more remote.

    The sky is getting cloudy, it looks like it might rain, and there's some mist rolling in, and I think I saw a Death-Eater behind a tree, but I can't be sure.

12:30 – Our train pulls into Alton, and Aidan and I are, literally, the only people to get off. It's the end of the line, and we're the only ones who have braved it. We walk into the station – small, rickety, cold – but unfortunately no one on the Alton Town Municipal Board had the forethought to post, say, a 24' x 36' topographical map with color-coordinated walking directions to Jane's house. I resort to asking a rather tired looking woman behind a dirty service window.

    'Hi, excuse me, could you tell me how to get to Chawton?'

    The woman looks up. Some synapses jump and she processes my accent and touristy garb. My attempt to hide my destination by asking about the town instead of 'JaneAusten'sHouseWhichIHaveBeenWaitingToSeeMyWholeLife' fails, because she laughs. I even restrained myself from jumping up and down, but she knows what I'm here for, she's no idiot. American women with backpacks and sensible walking shoes can only mean one thing: Jane Austen pilgrimage.

But, really, folks? Whatever. By this time, Aidan and I were so hypped up on caffeine and Jane and an improtu dance-party on an empty train that we were moving into Do or Die mode. At this point I didn't care if I had to walk three miles down a sidewalk-less highway in fading daylight to get to this house.

Oh, funnily enough, that is exactly what we ended up doing. Turns out the house was located down the very end of some obscure road. At one point, I think one of us may have shook our hand at the heavens. The street on which we were walking bottomed out onto a dangerous roundabout, bracketed by two arrowed signs reading 'Jane Austen's House: This Way.' Pointing at each other. I think we really started to despair when we practically ate pavement crossing the roundabout and realized that the ways in which the signs were pointing had no sidewalk. But by this point I was preternaturally determined to make it there. I stormed back around the roundabout, and spied a street name I recognized from the AWFUL map on the Jane Austen website.

Aidan and I began walking rather warily down the street, since, if you didn't know, Britain can go from highway to farmland in 30 metres flat. There were suddenly horses milling around in fields next to us. Luckily, however, we found some nice British people out for a walk, who took enormous amounts of pity on us, and assured us we were going the right way. Jubilation! We finally found where we were going! We continued down the road, feeling much better, and even more determined. But there was one final wrench.

We walked about another half mile and then stopped, because we got to the end of the road the British people directed us down, and couldn't see any more signs or anything. Nothing that looked like the house where six works of groundbreaking literature were composed. There was shoulder slumping, loss of hope, etc.

'Aidan, we're never going to find it.' Tears coming on.

'No, no, we will, we w – look!'

And Aidan points. And we are standing right next to a gate saying 'Jane Austen House & Museum; Enter Here.' And I'm pretty sure if I was just rescued by Bear Grylls after hanging off a precipice in the Himalayas, I wouldn't feel a bigger wave of relief as I did after Aidan used basic cognitive faculties to figure out that we had reached our destination. Thank goodness I had that girl with me; she is a life-saver.

I mean, the rest of our adventure was just bliss. I won't stifle you with my ramblings. Mostly we walked (semi-floated) around the grounds of this beautiful little house. The whole place is run by little old ladies who totally understand the reason people like me come to the place. They even let me take pictures inside the house, even though there's a huge sign banning cameras.

And do you know what I wrote in the guest book? Do you know? Guess. I wrote: 'She has bewitched me, body & soul!' Because she has! Her writing captivates me.

Is it too weird? I think it's too weird. But it's too late now. It's there forever.

Or until they rip the page out.

But I have to say, this whole day was one of the best (if not the best!) part of my whole trip here. Not only did I spend a few hours in house of my literary heroine, I got to do it with a wonderful friend and tell a wonderful story.

Is there really more one can ask?

From heights of ecstasy,

R.L.

'Such art as hers can never grow old.'

1 comment:

  1. I just have to share that I laughed OUT LOUD for several minutes when the "Death-Eater" allusion came into play. There are times when living alone really has its advantages. So glad you got to see the house! I just started my comparison essay of Austen and Alcott - can't wait for you to read/edit it!

    ReplyDelete