Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Kew Gardens was formed when George III inherited two gardens from his grandfather and joined them into one estate. It 1840 it became the Royal Botanic Garden. The collection of William Hooker, a notable director of Kew Gardens, became the foundation of the botanic Library, Art, and Archives collection when it was bought for a thousand pounds. This collection is filled with important works by famous botanists, and has items dating back as far as the middle ages. The remarkable progress in scientific illustration is evident in the differences between the fanciful medieval drawings in the collection’s oldest item, a 1370 book about herbal remedies, and the meticulous reproductions of plant life created in books like the mid-eighteenth century works of Mark Catesby.

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Horus Sanitatis. Herbal dating from ca. 1370.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Kew archives was the Herbarium. Organized much like a library, but with dry plant specimens instead of books, this huge collection of seven to eight million specimens continues to grow by about 300,000 species each year. To accommodate this wealth of specimens, a new wing is needed about every fifty to sixty years.

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Space isn’t the only difficulty for the Herbarium, however; fire has always been a risk, especially before the days of electricity. The Herbarium is build with large windows to decrease the need for fire-based lights. Pests, usually small beetles, are a problem as well. The old remedy for pests was to paint plants with mercury. Today, methods have changed considerably; infected specimens are frozen to kill pests, and the area cleaned and sprayed. The new wing is climate controlled to provide an inhabitable environment for the pests. During World War II, bombing was also a real threat. Today you can still see specimens that have red borders, an indication that they were the best specimens that should be quickly removed if necessary.

Not only is Kew a fascinating archive of botanical discoveries, but in many ways a living history of the field of botany itself.

London Archaeological Archives & Research Center (LAARC)

The London Archaeological Archives & Research Center (LAARC) is the third building in the Museum of London group. While the Museum of London itself serves as the face for this organization, providing exhibits on the history and archaeology of London for visitors to view, much of the work involved is done behind the scenes here, at this work and storage center.

The Museum of London Archaeology is involved in all excavations that take place in London, and sometimes further afield as well. Any materials that are found come back to LAARC, where they are processed by the thirty-five specialists who work there. Though a few items, such as designer clothes, are purchased, many items are donated; they will take anything that was used in London and that they do not already have an example of; everything is catalogued by accession number. They work with anything dating from prehistory to the Second World War. Therefore, they have ended up with quite a large variety of items. We saw saint badges, ancient ice skates, a brick from the Great Fire, and even a boot found in one of Shakespeare’s theatres.

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Boot, contemporary with Shakespeare, LAARC.

Objects aren’t the only things that LAARC specializes in. They also make plans of old buildings that are being taken down so that they can be reconstructed later. They are also using oral history to gather information about some objects in the archive, such as machinery, that was used by people who are still living and able to explain how it worked and what it was used for.

The British Library

I’m not entirely sure what I expected from the British Library. Large, of course, and obviously full of books, but what else? I think I had visions of something with at least a facade of age; you think of very old books being in very old buildings (at least I do), and when I think of the British Library, my mind goes straight to very old books.

There are definitely very old books there, as is clearly broadcast by the huge glass tower right in the middle, which houses the collection of George III. The six-story glass tower is a concession to the king’s requirement that his library be on display and available for public use at all times. This founding collection is interesting not only because of its size (85,000 items) and beautiful bindings; it includes books in sixteen languages. This started a precedent in the British Library, which now holds the largest collection of foreign language materials in the world.

"BritishLibraryInterior02". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BritishLibraryInterior02.jpg#mediaviewer/File:BritishLibraryInterior02.jpg

“BritishLibraryInterior02”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BritishLibraryInterior02.jpg#mediaviewer/File:BritishLibraryInterior02.jpg

Aside from these books, however, everything in sight upon entering the British Library is modern. The newness is a bit shocking in contrast to all of the age and history of those books and the treasures that are famously housed here. Everything about this building is thoroughly modern. Thirty-five million items in this vast collection are housed in the largest underground complex in Europe, that goes down seventy-five feet beneath the library. A system of machines and conveyor belts brings requested items swiftly up to the surface, where they can be distributed to researchers in subject-specific reading rooms. This efficiency is necessary, as the library gets about 4,000 book requests a day. For those items too delicate or valuable for reader use, the library has cameras that can make photographs of up to sixty million pixels of the items – high res enough for anything you might need. Some of these are available online already. If not, the library can take them for you.

It was incredible to see how such a huge library works, but to me, the really exciting thing was the Treasure Room. Exactly what it sounds like, the Treasure Room is a dimly lit area where some of the most valuable and popular items owned by the library are held. One of the most exciting items for me was the Beowulf manuscript. Gazing at one of the founding works of English literature was incredible. To make it even better, they connected it to the present by placing beside it a page from the manuscript of Seamus Heaney’s translation. Seeing the handwriting of the recently deceased poet right beside that of an anonymous scribe from centuries earlier was a very moving tribute to the life of the written word. The Anglo-Saxons saw power in words – in fact, the Old English word “wyrd,” from which the modern “word” derived, has undertones of power and magic, hence the “wyrd sisters” in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Maybe the Anglo-Saxons were onto something. After all, there is no surer way to be sure that your name will be remembered than through words.

Stowe House

The beautiful Stowe House began its life as a private home for the Temple-Grenvilles, a powerful family who spend much of their time involved in the center of British politics. They were also famous for their patronage of authors; Alexander Pope in particular was a frequent visitor. As one might expect in a house built to impress, Stowe is a very striking and imposing structure indeed. Everything about Stowe makes a big impression: the massive house itself, the expansive gardens, even the fresh, clean air – even though I knew that, as Europe’s largest city, London must have a fairly hefty amount of pollution in the air, I never noticed it until I noticed its marked absence! Even today, the Temple-Grenvilles, long gone from Stowe, are awing us with their power.

IMG_3053In 1923, the house, no longer in the hands of the family, became a school. Because of the high costs involved in keeping up the school and grounds, the school gifted the gardens to the National Trust in the 1960s. In 1997 the school began opening the house for tours every day, in order to make more money to help maintain its A rating. Actually, offering tours of this grand house was nothing new; Stowe was first opened to the public in 1717, making it one of the oldest British tourist attractions. This has actually proved to be a great boon when it comes to restoration work on Stowe, because the guidebooks produced for visiting tourists during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries give detailed descriptions of what the house looked like at regular intervals during its history. This is a great help in making Stowe’s restorations as faithful to its original appearance as possible.

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As a library class, an area with a great deal of importance to us was the school library. Though this room began as a ballroom in the 1730s and was divided into two rooms, a dining and drawing room, in the 1760s, in the 1790s it was opened up into one room again, and became the library.

The library has recently been renovated, including the renovation of this stunning plaster ceiling. The gold part is indeed the real thing; it is gilded with 23.5 karat gold. The gold on ceilings was not only beautiful, but was meant to reflect light into the room and to make it look brighter.

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Library ceiling, restored plaster and gilding.

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The views out of the library windows are enough to make any librarian swoon – these gardens beat the heck out of the asphalt parking lots and streets we usually get!

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The mahogany bookshelves that line the walls are original to the 1790s library – as are the hidden doors built to look like bookshelves! Sadly, the original library and manuscript collection – one of the finest and most well-known in Europe – was sold in 1849. Since 1923, books have gradually been donated to give the current library the look of an old one, as it might have appeared in its heyday.

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Though the fireplaces have been moved around some over the years, they are original. They were actually sold in 1929 as well, but luckily were too large to remove from the room.

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It is amazing to think of Stowe being a part of everyday life for the lucky students, faculty, and staff who call this estate home. I think I’d be happy to move on in at any time!

Stratford-upon-Avon

I got to spend a lovely day in Stratford-upon-Avon enjoying things literary, library, theatrical, and bucolic.

Stratford-upon-Avon is home of the world’s most charming public library. Established as a Carnegie Library, this medieval building would have been knocked down to make way for a modern library, but the people of Stratford-upon-Avon stood firm. They liked their medieval building, and they were going to keep it. If Mr. Carnegie didn’t like it, he could build his library elsewhere. They got to keep the building AND have their library. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you’ll find that maybe you can after all.

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Stratford-upon-Avon has got to be one of the prettiest towns in the world. I am always a fan of medieval buildings, and it has them in plenty. It also has the lovely little Avon running through it, serving as a home for many, many swans, as well as a few of the more nautically inclined humans.

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Of course, what would Stratford-upon-Avon be without a little Shakespeare? Just another fantastic medieval town, that’s what. So at least part of my day had to turn toward the Bard. Stratford-upon-Avon is famous for being the beginning and ending for him, the places of his birth and death. His birthplace, a large half-timbered house in the center of the town, is a popular tourist destination.

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The church where he is buried, Holy Trinity, is an even more fascinating destination. If you walk along the river, you will go along a green path, which will wind its way into the cemetery surrounding the church. The cemetery is large and quite old, very peaceful and beautiful.

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Shakespeare’s grave is located inside, all the way to the back. A barrier prevents you from coming all the way up to it, but signs ensure that you don’t miss it. The famous inscription is reproduced on a sign so that you can read it from your spot a few feet away.

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Although Mr. Shakespeare is, without a doubt, the church’s most famous inhabitant, it would be a shame to miss taking a look at the building itself. Though a church stood here as early as 845, the present building was begun in 1210, with later expansions and renovations added through the centuries afterward.

These magnificent misericord seats were part of a 1480-1520 addition. These are images of only a few of the fanciful carvings on the twenty-six seats.

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The crowning glory of the trip to Stratford-upon-Avon was a performance of Henry IV, Part I – one of my favorite of Shakespeare’s plays. I had always dreamed of seeing the Royal Shakespeare Company perform, but didn’t think I was likely to get much closer to that than watching Kenneth Branaugh films any time soon. Yet here I was, enjoying the performance of a lifetime. The cast was fantastic, and the set, lighting, costumes, and other elements were well executed. The fight scenes (a crucial part of HenryIV.I.) were exciting and energetic; it didn’t just look like a couple of guys carefully banging swords together, as they can sometimes turn out. A+ all around!

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During the intermission and after the show, I had a quick peek around the building. The Royal Shakespeare Company had a delightful collection of items used in past shows on display, including production stills, beautiful costumes from several productions, and even a life-sized bear from The Winter’s Tale!

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I can’t imagine a better way to end a day in Shakespeare’s home town.

Oxford

A fabulous day in lovely lovely Oxford started off right with a stop in at the Bodleian. Though there are over 120 libraries in the University, the Bodleian is the most recognized name among them. It has its origins in the fourteenth century, when Bishop of Worcester donated funds to construct the original building. The most famous patron of Oxford’s library, Sir Thomas Bodley, donated money and many books of his own to the cause of replenishing the institution’s supply of books, which had been reduced to almost nothing after the 1550 removal of all books deemed too popish for the use of a Protestant organization. Bodley’s legacy also includes the agreement originated by him with the Stationers’ Company of London, which stated that the Bodleian was entitled to a copy of every book published in England. Though much about publishing in England has changed, this agreement stands to this day, leading to the current staggering 13-million-book collection.

The tour started in the room originally used for examinations for theology students. It later became the library, until it was moved into the current library. This room was quite exciting for me, as I kind of have a thing for great fan vaulting.

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The next room has a strong tie with English history – the throne standing at the end of the room is was used by Charles I when he sought shelter at Oxford from the hostile Parliamentary forces. He held court in this very room during his stay here. It’s humbling to think about the history that stands in this room. Obviously, we weren’t allowed to touch King Charles’s chair, much less sit in it, or even approach it, really, but in that moment the connection to the ill-fated monarch was unmistakable.

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Our second class visit of the day was to Christ Church College, founded by Cardinal Wolsey in 1524. This beautiful college was originally called Cardinal College in honor of its powerful founder, but was changed to Aedes Christi when it was re-founded by Henry VIII in 1546, after Cardinal Wolsey’s fall from power.IMG_2903

It has seen many famous students in its long history, from John Locke to John Wesley, and even beloved author Lewis Carroll.IMG_2904

As well as all of this academic history, Christ Church College has a more pop culture related claim to fame as the set for scenes from the Harry Potter movies, such as the Great Hall and the stairs leading to it. It is amazing to think about the fact that, for some lucky students, this incredible place is part of their daily lives. How often do colleges in the US have china personalized with the name of the school? How often do students at colleges anywhere enjoy their meals under the watchful eyes of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I?

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Finally, no trip to Oxford would be complete without a stop by The Eagle and Child, the pub where the The Inklings met. This literary group’s most famous members were J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, but many other academics and writers joined them for their informal meetings. It was here that now-famous works such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and C. S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet first saw the light of day. The narrow hallways and small rooms look like just the place that hobbits and centaurs might spring to life.

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