Airplanes are essentially “time travel machines.” At least, that’s what I often tell my grandkids. By them, we can travel forwards or backwards in time, arriving suddenly into breathtaking cultures and places that are very, very different from what we know. As I write this, my head is still dizzy with jet lag as I try to adjust my mind and body to the sudden change of finding myself nine hours behind where I was at this same time yesterday. It’s amazing, really… waking and having a leisurely breakfast of croissants and coffee in a flat in Paris, France, then falling exhausted into bed in Vancouver, B.C. that very same evening, nine hours earlier than it was at that very same moment in Paris. There’s no doubt about it: this is time-travel!
My husband Dan and I love travel, and we’re good at it. Well, truthfully, I’m only good at it if I’m with Dan, who has a most impressive knack for getting us to exactly the right place at the right time, on the right bus, at the right stop, in a place where we don’t speak the language, in a city we’ve never been to before– peppering it all with just enough spontaneity to keep me on my toes and create the most amazing memories that we laugh and talk about for years after.
Together we’ve been to a lot of wonderful places, and yet this recent trip was very different. This time, having been deeply inspired by Jim Belcher’s book, “In Search of Deep Faith”– the story of how he and his family traveled through Europe for almost a year studying heroes of the faith in an effort to pursue something far deeper than the “moralistic therapeutic deism” that pervades the current church in America– Dan and I were likewise ripe and ready for such a “pilgrimage.” Belcher quoted John Inge’s “A Christian Theology of Place” saying that “pilgrimage” is characterized by a rediscovery of our roots, an understanding that life is a journey, and a new focus on our true destination. Often, we have to travel “back” in order to properly go “forward.” “Stand by the roads and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is,” the Bible says in Jeremiah 6:16, “and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” This is exactly what Dan and I were hungry for– “time travel” of sorts to search out our Christian roots and deepen our faith.
Life’s circumstances prevented us from traveling for a full year, but a month seemed reasonable for us, and like Belcher’s family, we too decided that Oxford, England– home of the great writer C.S.Lewis– was a perfect place for us to begin. C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia” had made a great impact on my faith when we read them to our kids so many years ago. Our kids in turn have read the series to their own children, and it amused and warmed me when our grandchildren fell into the roles of Peter, Susan, Edmond, and Lucy, playing “Narnia” together. When one of our grown sons told me that Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” had impacted his faith in a significant way, he urged me to read it… which led me to read more and more of Lewis’s books, and led Dan to read some of them out loud to me. Our plan, consequently, was to spend a full week studying at the C.S. Lewis Foundation Summer Seminar in Oxford, then to stay at a vacation rental close by to spend a couple of weeks reading, praying, writing, and studying after the seminar. Unfortunately, life’s circumstances again required that we cut our trip even shorter–no vacation rental– but we were eager for what time we could have.
After flying into Heathrow, Dan and I took a bus to Windsor to spend a day adjusting to the 8 hour time change. Our first stay was at the Crown and Cushion B&B situated over a centuries-old pub in Eton (just over the walking bridge from Windsor, very close to the castle.) The sheer age of the building, the crooked floors and creaking narrow staircases plunged us into history. Windsor and Eton are beautiful, exactly the quaint British setting we’d exactly hoped for! What a restful place!
But time-travel is confusing. Though barely mid-afternoon, we were ravenous, so we popped into the Duchess of Cambridge pub for rich and meaty beef pies. Cozy in the pub, Dan fought the urge to nod off as sudden rain deluged the streets outside the window and a sea of umbrellas popped up out of nowhere. The rain stopped as abruptly as it had started when we finished our lunch… or dinner… whatever…and we were off.
Late afternoon arrived soon enough, and we lined up with less than a hundred others waiting to attend Evensong at Windsor Castle. As we were ushered in to the chapel, both Dan and I were stunned at the breathtaking beauty of this ancient “walled village” that was Windsor Castle! No wonder the Queen of England prefers this beautiful peaceful setting as her favored residence where she retreats for as many weekends as she can. Since there were so few of us attending, we were seated right in the quire, where the choir occupied a mere section of it, and were swept into this beautiful, uplifting experience!
After a wonderful rest that night, we returned again to tour Windsor Castle, walked around this perfect little town, then very reluctantly left the peaceful setting, heading off by train for London.
London. Just as I had imagined– busy, crowded, loud, and full of history. We did the expected: saw the sites of the Tower of London, the Tower Bridge, Big Ben, Trifalgar Square and Picadilly Circus, Parliament Buildings, Buckingham Palace, Downing Street… but the highlight that I had deeply anticipated was Westminster Abbey. Dan and I took our time wandering slowly through it, excitedly nudging each other as we identified markers. “Look! William Wilberforce is buried here!” “Ah!! Rudyard Kipling!” “Oh my goodness! The coronation chair!” “This is exactly the spot where William and Kate were married!”…
We returned again later for Evensong, enthused to be counted among the long history of worshippers who have gathered in this place since the crowning of William the Conqueror in 1066. As a brochure stated, “Daily services have been sung here for centuries– and still are– to the praise and glory of God.” Unlike the more intimate Evensong at Windsor Castle, a far larger crowd squeezed into the seats in Westminster Abbey as the choir sang the liturgical service. This was a worship experience that’s never to be forgotten!
But two days in London was just enough. Traveling light –just one small carry-on each– Dan and I crowded into the tube to Paddington Station once again, and boarded our train for Oxford- that beautiful “sweet city with her dreaming spires,” and our incredibly memorable week began!
While checking in at the Red Mullion– our “home” for the next week– we immediately became acquainted with the first two couples who would also be part of our study group– two brothers, Dave and Phil, with Kathy and Karen, from Seattle and Denver, Colorado respectively. Altogether, this great group of fellow-scholars was a pleasant and congenial mix of Lewis enthusiasts. Participants traveled from Tennessee, Seattle, Spokane, Minnesota, and Japan– a well-read group of interesting and animated individuals including a plastics surgeon, a real estate agent, a pastor, a consultant, an artist, a businessman, writers, and teachers.
Soon, the van arrived to take us to the Kilns– the quaint and cozy home where C. S. Lewis had lived for 30 years, and where the very popular Chronicles of Narnia, countless letters, and many other works were penned. And there began our adventure!
For the next very full week, our group of 11 was saturated in the story of C.S.Lewis and his writings, expertly led by Rev. Earl Palmer, retired Senior Pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, WA. To study Lewis’ life was to also study the friendships and influences that formed his faith and theology… so we also learned much about J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, Lewis’s wife Joy Davidman, the Inklings, Dorothy Sayers and others of his contemporaries who shaped what he became. To study Lewis and his writings is to deeply appreciate that he was used by God as an arrow very affectively pointing us to Christ, and the great relevance of his writing for us in this time and in our faith. As Lewis himself wrote, “Bad philosophy must be replaced with good philosophy,” and therefore we must perpetuate sound biblical study, thought, discussion, reading and writing, even in the most difficult of times.
Interspersed between the teaching sessions, our group visited many historically rich sites in both Oxford and Cambridge in tours hosted by Kim Gilnett from Seattle Pacific University. A Lewis enthusiast who spends considerable time in England, Kim has spent over 15 summers at The Kilns where he has been involved in ensuring the historical accuracy of its restoration, and was an excellent tour guide– along with his chauffering assistant Graham, a very amiable British “bloke.”
Perpetual sunshine and surprisingly intense 90ºF heat that we did not expect (or prepare for) in England failed to deter the enthusiasm of seeing places like Magdalen College (Oxford) and Magdalene College (in beautiful Cambridge), my much-anticipated Addison’s Walk, Balliol, St Mary’s Church, Blackwell’s Bookstore, the Sheldonian Theater, Tolkien’s home and many, many other sites including the Martyr’s Monument and cobblestone cross inlaid on Broad Street marking the exact site of whereThomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, and Hugh Latimer were burnt at the stake for their Faith.
Worship at Holy Trinity Church where Lewis attended regularly was a particularly special experience, as well as visiting the cemetery there where he is buried unceremoniously. We also visited the cemetery where his close friend J.R.R. Tolkien is buried, and found among a clutter of notes and coins from around the world, that someone had tied a gold ring over Tolkien’s grave. We stopped at Madingly American Cemetery on our long drive to Cambridge, visited the simple cemetery where Sir Winston Churchill is buried, and stopped for tea and class in the beautiful and historical shady Orchard in Grantchester (a particularly happy surprise for Dan and me, avid BBC fans as we are, regular watchers of Foyle’s War, Father Brown, Poirot, Bletchley Files, Doc Martin… and, of course, ‘Grantchester.’)
I especially enjoyed a beautiful mile-long evening walk along the Thames River (known as Isis at that place) from the Perch pub, where we’d sat in the shade while Walter Hooper recalled his times with Lewis, to the Trout pub for dinner. On another afternoon, we experienced an outstanding British tea of sandwiches, sweets, cheeses, scones with clotted cream etc., served in the garden at the Kilns, expertly prepared and hosted by the Kilns staff. We also savored delicious, thoroughly British meals at various pubs like The Eagle and Child, the Whitehart, the Plough, the Lamb and Flag… all renowned places where the Inklings loved to meet for conversation and good fellowship. Food was hearty, plentiful and tasty, with the added enjoyment of plentiful Pimm’s and my personal favorite dessert, “Eton Mess.”
So much more could be said of this incredible week of study that also featured time spent with Aiden Mackey, British historian biographer of G.K. Chesterton, and Walter Hooper, one of the last to have actually known and worked with Lewis, who compiled and edited the book, “C.S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works.” But far too soon, the amazing week came to its end, and after good-bye hugs and well wishes, we all parted our separate ways. Dan and I rented a car and invited new friends Dave and Chrisi Bollinger from Tennessee to come along in our car with us as together we toured the stunning Blenheim Palace, the Churchill family home where Winston Churchill was born.
With promises to keep in touch, we parted ways with Dave and Chrisi, and with Dan continuing at the wheel, we made our way through very narrow English back roads through the breathtaking Cotswolds to The Pigeon House B&B on the edge of the fairytale village of Presby. Surrounded by thatched roofs and a quaint, centuries-old stone church across from a “tithing barn,” this place with such an unlikely name was an amazing giant step back in time to a quieter, safer, far more quaint and beautiful chapter in time. How I wished we could have stayed there for a much longer time! When we asked for a recommendation for a good pub, our host suggested that it was such a pleasant evening to walk the mile to the village across the open fields on the “footpath”… which we did, happily savoring the quintessential English life that we had only dreamed about till now… or watched on fictitious BBC shows. This was amazing…
Everything in me wanted to stay there longer… but we needed to keep on moving in order to accommodate our schedule, so with deep regret, we left this little piece of heaven, and drove onward through the narrow, winding roads of the English countryside to Bath, where we returned our rental car, walked through this fascinating city for awhile, and hopped on a train to Portsmouth for our last overnight stay in England.
Right on the English Channel, just below Southampton, Portsmouth itself had much to offer, had we been able to spend more time. But after a good night’s rest, we headed to the ferry early, and crossed the channel into France where we boarded a train to Paris.
Paris, France… Just two short days, yet they were just long enough for us to experience a taste of what life in Paris is really like. Waking in our perfectly “French” flat, I threw open the huge, heavy floor-to-ceiling windows with shutters that opened out into the courtyard below. Relaxed, we took our time waking over coffee and croissants, cheeses, cold meats, boiled eggs, yogurt before heading into the heart of Paris.
Since our time was short there, we headed first to the Eiffel Tower, chatting pleasantly on the bus in broken French and English with a friendly elderly French couple on their way to the museum. One of the goals of my trip was to photograph the Eiffel Tower for my granddaughter Raeme, who is currently in an “I love Paris” phase of life. I’d asked my granddaughters to draw pictures highlighting their names and what they wanted me to see, then Dan photographed me as I held them up at various sites: the Eiffel Tower for “Raeme loves Paris!”, Windsor Castle for “Charlotte loves castles!”, owls and the halls in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge for “Sadie loves Harry Potter!”
Neither Dan nor I felt any fear of terrorism as we travelled. Terrorism is horrific to be sure– but I refuse to let its power paralyze me, or prevent us from travel. Incidents are still minute within the seas of people we walked among. Though there were armed guards stationed everywhere periodically, and security guards checked my purse every time I entered a store on the Champs-Elysees, still, we thoroughly enjoyed the sites and sounds of Paris like the Arc d’Triomphe and the back streets of shops, cafes, and markets like the Rue Cler.
And just like that… our time in Europe was over and it was time to re-enter the time-machine to find our way back home. We felt so much deeper, richer in our faith and in our lives for having gone.
Life is a journey. Having experienced more of our roots, we came back better understanding our true destination… and sometimes, this can only happen if we, like Jeremiah said, are willing to go back periodically to a completely different time, and a completely different place… back to “the ancient paths…” and find rest for our souls.
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