“So, Fish Meggie. The Sooth! Another big town, another big adventure for ye…”
“Aye, I murmured, watching the waves far below us. The wide world.”
-Amanda Curtin, Elemental
I read these words on a train headed south through mist rolling in from the North Sea. I had picked up this novel – a story about a red-headed girl from a sheltered fishing community in the Shetland Islands – with passive interest. But what I find remarkable is how, despite the multitudes of books lining the wooden shelves at Topping and Company, I was drawn to this one. The more I kept reading, the more the tale of introspective and passionate Meggie Tulloch resonated with me at this precise moment. Like the heroine of the novel my thoughts often tiptoe toward the horizon; toward the “wide world,” farther and farther away from where they should be. And with graduation approaching, it seems that the world only grows wider. What’s next? Where will I go and what will I be doing? Who will I meet? These were questions that could not seem to quieten as I tried to enjoy my last few weeks in the United Kingdom.
This was especially pertinent given my destination, as throughout my time at St Andrews I had never made it to “the Sooth” (as a northerly Scot would say) and in particular London. My busy schedule would never permit a spontaneous trip, I could never scrape together enough funds, nobody would want to accompany me; I found that the closer my final flight back to Michigan loomed, the more these excuses seemed insurmountable. In hindsight, I realize now what it was that prevented me from exploring this part of the United Kingdom for so long. I was afraid: afraid that beyond the slow, burbling pace of mid-Michigan and Scotland I would drown in the deluge of frenetic energy that places like London thrived on. If I could not manage London in a single day, how could I ever manage to stay afloat if my post-graduate plans did indeed send me rushing straight into the center of London, New York, or Chicago?
However, I was forced to come to terms with the fact that all my apprehensions, excuses, and self-doubting was fueled by speculation. This, coupled with the immense generosity of Catriona (one of my closest friends), I was finally given the opportunity to experience what life in Southern England was like. And so I found myself boarding the train on June first for an adventure that by many standards was backwards: I was leaving the lochs and glens of Scotland for a place that, to me, was its own species of wilderness.
Godalming, a quiet town in Surrey, acted as my home base for the week. Prior to this the longest period I spent in England was a week in the Lake District during the easter holiday in my first year. The Lake District was remarkably Scottish in its pace of life and gently swelling hills, dotted with sheep. Yet being in Godalming had me feeling that, for the first time in a long while, I was well and truly somewhere new. Large Tudor-style homes lined the quaint streets with lush and fragrant “English gardens” beckoning you in. Contrary to its sleepy appearance, though, Godalming is commonly used as a film location, as one of its downtown streets featured in the 2006 film The Holiday and its outlying fields hosted the Roman masses of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. As a film buff, this bit of local trivia really struck my fancy.
On one of our rambles we stopped in the city park at a large gazebo, like something straight out of The Sound of Music, which becomes a community bandstand every Sunday. In one of those rare moments of coincidence you have to just smile and believe in the power of fate, a band called The Salts was scheduled to play for the Sunday that I would be in Godalming. The Salts are a contemporary folk music band that specialize in sea shanties, old ballads sung by sailors out at sea that often are in time to the rhythm of the various chores they had to complete while aboard. One of my not-so-secret obsessions is anything to do with the sea — pirates, sea shanties and ballads, sea monsters, sailing, and maritime folklore — and not even the June sun roasting my winter-paled skin could tear my attention away from the music. I was also awed by the sense of community wrapped in these weekly bandstand concerts, and felt as though I was privileged to experience this wee spot of local color.
However, I think what I most enjoyed about Godalming was the River Spey Walk, pictured above. While the sky was grey and there was a damp chill in the air, these conditions made the willow trees look more dramatic and enchanting. One of my favorite childhood stories was Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows; and this moment, breathing in the crisp, clean scent of the river while listening to the trees whisper to one another made me feel as though I was living that story. I felt truly content, embraced by a landscape that had thus far only lived in the world of “once upon a time” rather than my waking life. Perhaps what also made this moment so special was that it allowed Catriona to see her home in a new way, as a place of enchantment rather than somewhere ho-hum and unremarkable. At last I was finally getting to return the favor she had done for me last summer when she visited Michigan: seeing the beauty and wonder in all places, even your own backyard.
The Saturday after my arrival in Surrey was the big day: my tour of London. Both excited and nervous I followed Catriona through the maze of tube stations until we reached Leicester Square to meet up with two of our other friends from university. Our first stop was Covent Garden for a Ben’s Cookie fresh out of the oven and to see the eclectic vendors bustling under the emerald canopy of Apple Market. While I was savoring a warm and gooey dark chocolate and peanut butter cookie, the first notes of Bruno Mars’s “Marry You” drifted through the courtyard. Suddenly, a flash mob broke out before us and a crowd gathered, smiles blooming on every face. As the song would suggest, this was a grand gesture of a marriage proposal; and the first flash mob I had ever witnessed firsthand. We all could not believe our luck with having the opportunity to experience something so charming as that, and the aura of cheer and celebration from the flashmob set the tone for the day to come.
Meandering down toward Buckingham Palace, the crowds became more and more congested. All of a sudden we ran directly into a mounted guard as war drums boomed in the distance. Unbeknownst to the three London familiars I was with, the Trooping of the Colour rehearsal was unfolding right at the precise moment we decided to see the palace. The four of us quickly made our way to the main circle outside Buckingham Palace to see the procession, which was a magnificent sight to behold. I was especially partial to the regiment of Scottish pipers, their sweeping tweed capes and bellowing bagpipes conjuring the lochs and glens I left behind, a comfort in all this newness. In the words of my friend Kathryn, it didn’t get more British than this, bar seeing the Queen (which may have been a tall order for the day). However, I feel privileged that I had the opportunity to see something that is indeed distinctly British in the heart of the country’s capitol.
After making our way through St James’s Park and Westminster Abbey, Siân suggested going to Borough Market for lunch. This was probably my favorite part of London, being the foodie that I am. Borough Market is one of the largest and oldest food markets in London, with vendors to entice any palate. Egyptian koshari, Thai curry, American soul food, German würst, produce stands, juice bars, sommeliers, fish mongers, cheese mongers, and a table of baked goods too delicious for this world crowded under the glass ceiling, humming with energy. I finally settled on a “classic” vegan cheeseburger from The Veggie Table and a fresh pressed raspberry and apple juice from one of the vegetable vendors. This was the perfect light yet energizing lunch to fuel a day of gallivanting throughout London.
As the day was drawing to a close it was evident that the four of us needed to be on our way back home, as the conversations and my already meandering walking pace were slowing. When asked about my venture to London, my most common response is to remark on the sheer sprawl of the city and how densely populated it is; I am certain that I saw more people in that single day than in my twenty-two years of living. However, I found the experience to be overall a very positive one. I think what made London much more interesting and simply fun to be in was the fact that I was with three friends who all grew up around London, and in Kathryn’s case, went frequently into the city and had shown several other friends the “must see” locales. Compared to my time in Munich two years ago, when I had never been in a city larger than Edinburgh and I was expected to be the Europe-savvy guide, London was so much more enjoyable in terms of city sight-seeing. Yet as our train drifted further out into the soft green borders of Surrey, I was thankful to once more be amongst the trees and the quiet of rural life.
I have already mentioned my fondness for all things oceanic and naval. How little I knew at the time that the wee sea shanty concert we stumbled upon would portend actually getting the chance to stand upon the decks of real nineteenth century British war ships. Despite being very ill, Catriona graciously took me on a surprise venture down to Portsmouth to see the HMS Warrior and the HMS Victory. Also housed at Portsmouth harbour is the Mary Rose, a war galleon built by Henry the Eighth that sunk in 1545. Raised in 1982, the Mary Rose has been painstakingly preserved for the past thirty-four years, in which it still needed to be continuously sprayed with water to preserve its integrity. However, the exhibit surrounding the ship has been significantly redesigned as the water and chemical sprays that have strengthened its water-logged wood were turned off to begin a drying out process. Thus I could not see the ship for myself, but I was content to learn this history and see some of the restored artifacts reclaimed from the wreck.
Aboard the HMS Warrior and the HMS Victory, with the brisk sea air tangling in my hair and the gentle morning sun seeping into my skin, I felt my imagination easing itself awake after a long semester. I walked towards the bow of the ship as softly as I could, wary that my presence would disturb the whispers of the past engrained in the deck like the salt of the sea. It is a moment such as this that I sometimes feel as though I truly am the “old soul” my mother claims I am. And maybe I was even a sailor in a past life, always away at sea. For it is near the water or on the deck of a boat that I often feel most at ease, most within myself; and the chance to see, to smell, and to touch a real historical naval ship such as this simply felt like coming home.
Following these busy jaunts to Winkworth Arboretum, London, Guildford, and Portsmouth, Catriona was certain that we had exhausted her home of adventures. Yet there was one last gem tucked away in the fields outlying Guildford that demanded exploration: Loseley Park. The current house pictured above dates back to the sixteenth century and holds within its walls a rich Tudor history. Today, the house is not only open to the public for tours and is often used as a wedding venue, but still serves as the home for the descendants of the original More-Molyneux family. While I usually bristle at the prospect of guided tours, I am thankful for the one through Loseley House, as our guide was not only exceedingly knowledgable about the property, but evidently passionate about the history of the house. A father and daughter duo accompanied Catriona and I on this guided tour and both kept asking thoughtful and intelligent questions about the furnishings, various family members, and the history behind the home. These two elements really enriched my experience of Loseley House, and made me wish that I had frequented more National Trust sites to be able to recognize paintings, furnishings, and historical attributes common to these stately English homes.
The secrets of the house were delicious to discover: a rare portrait of Anne Boleyn and a “scandal” involving the daughter of the Tudor builder, Sir William More, and the rakish poet John Donne. And contrary to many Americans who flock to see the homes featured in Downton Abbey or Pride and Prejudice, Loseley House is the first stately English home I have visited, yet I do not feel that I have missed out on some grand experience after four years in the United Kingdom. Rather, because Loseley Park is “off the beaten track” a bit, I feel as though I had the opportunity to experience something a bit richer, a bit more special; to tour England as a true local might.
But what truly made Loseley Park remarkable was the sheer enchantment of the surrounding gardens. Around every bend there was a new delight to be had, such as a trellis of demure white roses or a secret bench hidden in a hollow of verdant green shrubs. The gardens were a spectacle straight out of the film Labyrinth, or a picture book I was fond of as a child entitled One Enchanted Evening. This was somewhere I could picture myself enacting one of my greatest life fantasies: running, barefoot and lithe, wearing a heartbreakingly beautiful ballgown under a clear moonlit sky.
As Catriona and I wandered deeper and deeper amongst this emerald sea, I kept whispering how I never wanted to leave. In this moment, caught between the physical completion of my degree and its ceremonial conclusion at graduation, all I wanted to do was pause and breathe it in slow and deep. I have no doubt that these four years spent in the United Kingdom will constitute some of the best years of my life, and it is because of these adventures I was so fortunate to embark upon with truly wonderful people. Without the companionship and generosity of people like Catriona I would have never been able to stand triumphantly aboard a nineteenth century war ship, nor lose my heart amongst the petals and vines of a hedgerow fairy tale. Yet just like Meggie Tulloch it was my time to face the wide world, the world beyond this dream that I had been living for four years.
As my train pulled once more into Leuchars station I found it difficult to fight the swell of emotion rising in my throat. Is “the sooth” where I would find myself after graduation, or somewhere even more foreign to me? While the time was approaching that I could no longer ignore these questions, I began to see the good in my situation. As this week in Surrey with Catriona proved to me, my time in St Andrews has meant so much more than just a physical adventure; it has been a journey into what constitutes true friendship. Over the past four years I have been welcomed into the homes of so many people — English, Irish, and Scottish — and had the opportunity to see so many diverse walks of life. This is perhaps what I am most thankful for during my time at St Andrews, forging these bonds with so many different people, yet finding a kindred spirit in each and every one of them. And while my future may be uncertain in terms of location or occupation, of one thing I can be certain: that I will always have a home with the wonderful people I have had the pleasure to call my friends.