The house was tall and crème colored, with narrow stained glass windows. I’d imagined it differently but it charmed me all the more for the surprise. Standing on the doorstep like an abandoned child with four overstuffed bags, I heard a stampede of pitter-pattering feet rush to greet the doorbell’s chime.
An Englishman’s home is his castle. My aunt shared this adage on that first day as I toured the family’s charmingly chaotic Southend home. In the course of the next week I would visit many homes and many castles, but would struggle to discern the similarities. Home may be many things: it may be a place where the heart lies, or it may be merely a room one returns to nightly, but regardless of its meaning a house is a house and castle is a castle. They are dissimilar, I thought, in both architecture and purpose. But time and travel change minds.
The first home I visited on the four day, four cousin, four wheel trip was alien yet familiar—a university, but one quite unlike my own. I shall say this of Cambridge: for the students who manage to elbow their way through Cambridge’s selective gates, home is a very fine place indeed. Depending on the college, home was built by Henry VI, VII, or VIII along the banks of the River Cam. The students’ modest dorms sit under soaring, ornate spires inset with sculptures of its patron regents, and are no more than a few blocks walk from a townful of teashops and boutiques. Compared to the dorms at my cozy university, these certainly did appear to be castles. They even bore names like “Kings’” or “Queens’” college, as if to emphasize the fact that minds molded within them adhered to royal standard, (although our guide insisted that Queen’s college had been named after Sir Elton John). Upon understanding the magnitude of the University’s history, my feet began to palpitate with respect for the celebrity ground.
Just for contrast we toured a real castle the next day, in Windsor. Windsor castle is ensconced in layers of protection: walls and hills and a moat (now a garden) stand to protect it from outside invaders, red coated soldiers daily march its borders, and towering halls bear the crests of centuries of security guards, the ever shining knights in armor. But the interior threats have tortured the Queen’s fine home away from home—fires have twice raged within its walls, the latest one having occurred as recently as 1992. With their history one would hope that the English would have adopted some better fire safety habits, but it seems they still find moats more important than fire alarms. Never one to sit idly on her throne, the Queen has conducted various fundraisers for the castle’s expensive repair, including opening (to paying customers) the hallowed halls of Buckingham Palace, the most exquisite and artistically endowed home I have ever seen. I am happy to report that Windsor castle is now as un-charred and sootless as ever. Still, the fires reminded me that, for all the measures taken to secure one’s doors, it is often threats from within that pose the greatest risk to a home.
I sense that the phrase my aunt quoted may have taken inspiration from the homes of the English high society; Blenheim palace, the humble home of the Churchill family, being one of them. Hardly smaller than the palace of the previous day, Blenheim was built in keeping with royal tradition. The endless corridors were decorated with flags of family coats-of-arms, as well as the first animal heads I’ve ever seen used as décor in a non steak house setting. Their tumultuous, political family history was also reminiscent of the blue-blooded line.
Blenheim palace sits on a lovely little plot of land that conveniently has its own waterfall, and enough space to ensure that the owners never have to settle for only one type of garden. After a stressful hour spent navigating two strollers and a posse whining children through winding hallways stuffed with highbrow crowds, we retired to the rose garden, the Italian garden, and the not-so-secret garden. Then, to the children’s (and consequently our) delight, we found a creaky, open-air train that bore us to the Churchill children’s back yard play area.
Parents with unruly children may want to consider adopting this castle’s handy technique for your own evenings away from home: build a high hedge maze, the bigger the better. Just set the kids at the entrance of the maze before a movie, and, if they find the maze as challenging as we did, they will sit panting by the exit upon your return. This will surely save on babysitting fees. See the conveniences of having a castle as a home? Despite the impressive ostentation of Blenheim palace, as houses go, the English play-house rivals the castle in importance and grandeur. The high pedestal upon which drama now stands in English culture was built chiefly by its most famous architect, William Shakespeare. For those who still claim that “Shakespeare” may have been several people rather than one man, please visit his historic home in Stratford-upon-Avon. I assure you it is not large enough for more than a few Shakespeares. The thatched roof hangs low over the squat walls, and the floorboards creak and threaten to drop its visitors on the dusty kitchen floor below. Attracting nearly 500,000 visitors annually, the Bard’s former floorboards have been tread by the likes of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.
But whereas his childhood house was not terribly grand, Shakespeare’s true home, in the play house, was splendid. The Globe that stands in London today still boasts the glamour it might have during a bout of Shakespearian success, with three tiers of circular splendor. I watched The Comedy of Errors there one London evening and found many occasions to look around and wonder why I had thought it was a good idea to purchase a Yard ticket (the yard audience stands in the space before the stage for the duration of the play’s 3 hours). Still, with international high school students reading Shakespearian works hundreds of years after their original debut, and aspiring actors heading to London to train at the finest academies, the play-house and the Castle seem to stand almost equally high in the English eye.
I’ve often felt that language is a sort of house we live in. Language certainly provides that sense of familiarity and inclusion, and as such it often the most noticeably foreign aspect of a new place. At first glance, the English language barriers appear almost non-existent to an American tourist. As one breaches the barrier, however, one finds slippery footing and unexpected shifts. Not only did I attempt to enter the wrong door of the car that brought me to my cousins’ house, but I deigned to call the car a stick-shift rather than a manual. With the passing of days I found myself not only adopting the accent but also the phrasing of the locals, bidding my cousins to “mind” passing cars and “bin” their “rubbish.” In speaking with the sensitivities of the British affect, my tongue seemed to curl and my lips to purse in a way that made my mouth feel more elegant. I felt as though I was learning linguistic manners. By the end, when even my American accented speech seemed to take on a loftier tone, I found myself wondering whether, if language is indeed like a home we live in, the platform from which we view the world and choose our behavior, the English linguistic home might not indeed be a castle.