My wife and I returned last week from more than a month spent mostly in England, ending with several days in Iceland. The main purpose of our trip was research, but there were opportunities to visit with friends and to be tourists. It was a wonderful time, really a journey into history.
For those of us who love history, travel is vital. I’m probably not alone in sometimes forgetting this. Our immediate projects demand our attention. With everyday familiarity, the reminders of the past that first inspired us, the historic buildings, monuments, art and artifacts, even the landscape, begin to pall. Travel can change that. New lands and new encounters reopen our eyes and hearts to the past that still lives all around us.
I’ve been to England several times but the luxury of spending a month there allowed me to rediscover and appreciate a nation that is both far older in history than my homeland, but also every bit as much a part of today's world. The modern, comfortable archives, libraries and museums in which I spent so much time are doorways allowing me and my fellow scholars easy access to the past.
My wife and I were in England researching 19th century printed cotton fabrics. Britain was once the leading manufacturer and exporter of these. Ironically, these fabrics relate directly to my current project – a history of the clothing worn in California during the Mexican and early American eras (1822 – 1860).
I also took the opportunity to research a completely different subject, the clothing issued to Royal Navy seamen from the 1690s to 1740s. This topic is related to something I’ve written about and published – how did pirates really dress and where did we get our ideas about pirate garb? I hope to do more with this subject, which I'll discuss in a later post.
It was during this time in England that I realized how happy I am to be part of a community of scholarship that is not only united by the love of historical research and knowledge, but that is open to everyone. At institutions such as the National Archives and British Library, I was surrounded by people of every sort: male, female, young and old, from every nation. Each of us was on our personal quest and doing real research – the kind you cannot do on the Internet – by handling original documents.
When I wasn’t doing research, I visited historic sites and museums. At 17th century Bolsover Castle we saw a performance of early dressage.
The royal palace of Hampton Court, in London, offered some of the best living history interpretation I’ve ever seen. It was performed by a professional company, Past Pleasures, Ltd. http://pastpleasures.co.uk. I was deeply impressed to see skilled actors, beautifully costumed, engage in partly-scripted and partly-improvised scenarios that not only examined real historical issues, but involved the visitors and invited them to join in the conversation.
A weekend spent in Berkhamsted, a town north of London, introduced us to a community whose history stretches back at least as far as 1066, for this was where William the Conqueror received the surrender of England after the Battle of Hastings. Close to the train station stand the ruins of a Norman moat-and-bailey castle that once welcomed Thomas (later Saint Thomas) Beckett, Edward the Black Prince and the poet, Geoffrey Chaucer, among many others, as visitors.
And it was in the museums of Manchester and London where I met so many old “friends” – art and artifacts that I had known previously only through photographs. I also made many new acquaintences.
Our journey concluded with a few days visiting friends in Iceland – a country unlike any other I’ve seen. Founded by Norse voyagers more than a thousand years ago, reminders of the vikings are always near at hand. Travels through volcanic landscapes, visits to historic sites and museums and the sight of horses and sheep much like those of the early Icelanders filled me with wonder and the deep desire to return and discover more.
*Unless otherwise noted, I took the photo.
A. The view from the National Portrait Gallery, London, across to Trafalgar Square with Big Ben in the distance.
B. The new British Library with the Edwardian-era St. Pancras Hotel towers in the background.
C. Swatches of British printed cotton fabric from the first half of the 19th century.
D. This Players cigarette card from the 1930s reconstructs the dress of an early English seaman. It’s based on the same 1706 Admiralty document I studied at the British Archives in London. Thanks to Terry Hooker and the Military Historians Archives Unit on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/348080815241365/
E. Researcher examines an early manuscript at the National Archives at Kew. Internet photo.
F. Photo I took at Bolsover Castle of a rider in historical dress. With thanks to Alan Larsen
G. Historical interpreters at Hampton Court perform a scenario about the reign of George I.
H. The ruins of the Norman moat-and-bailey castle at Berkhamsted. From the English Heritage website: https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/berkhamsted-castle/
I. An artist’s reconstruction of the the castle at Berkhamsted. From the Berkhamsted Local History & Museum Society website: http://www.berkhamsted-castle.org.uk
J. Work by Ford Maddox Brown, 1852-1865. From the Manchester Art Gallery website: http://www.manchestergalleries.org
K. Þingvellir (Thingvedlr) on a gloomy day. This was the site of Iceland’s parliament from 930 CE to 1798.