Throughout my time in England, I met a variety of different people and saw many new places. I had never been across the Atlantic before, and I was not sure what to expect of the English culture. As an American, my country’s history spans only a few centuries unlike the millennia that created England’s past. While it would be difficult to accurately put the whole experience into words, England surprised me by the fact that its people live and incorporate their history into their daily lives on a scale that is far beyond what I’ve experienced in America. Traveling to two very distinct cities such as London and Exeter gave me two different perspectives on this history and showed me how it impacts people in a modern world.
Learning about England’s History in London
Beginning the trip in London* was definitely an eye-opening experience. We were thrust into one of the most influential cities in the world that is literally overflowing with things to see and appreciate. All the pomp and circumstance surrounding London seemed a bit strange to me, however. When I saw the changing of the regiment at Buckingham Palace, it seemed a bit antiquated and unnecessary. Or rather, it just felt like a historic display meant to lure in the tourists. During my walks throughout London, however, I began to understand why these people do what they do. The British are clearly a proud people with their own distinct culture from the rest of Europe, and above all, this pride is displayed through the history of the city. These people have centuries upon centuries of rich history that is largely defined by th
e influx of new peoples. London, in turn, owes its success to this diversity and continues to grow by building upon it and drawing in more people.
The second trip to London* provided a similar experience as the first. I stood in awe of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey and the insides didn’t cease to amaze. But once again, I found myself asking why are there so much ceremony and tradition associated with governmental buildings and procedures. I felt like I was walking through a museum as we toured the Houses of Parliament and walked into the grand meeting rooms with statues as far as I could see and paintings covering the walls. It occurred to me that London would be nothing without an appreciation for its history. Its historical significance draws people inwards and keeps them there as well. While London undoubtedly uses this history as a major selling point to tourists from around the world, it also incorporates its modern attractions, such as the West End or the city’s bustling nightlife, to fit itself into the 21st century.
After the whirlwind experience of London, I was not sure what to expect in a significantly smaller city like Exeter*. As soon as I stepped onto the platform of the Exeter St. David’s Train Station, I quickly realized that Exeter would be a completely different experience. After seeing such a showy and flashy city like London, Exeter provided a much different perspective on history in that it was much more than just a show or display. Rather, it is the product of its past, and its people integrate themselves into the living history of the city. One of the most incredible experiences of the entire trip was standing atop the North Tower of the Cathedral, looking out upon greater Exeter, and realizing that I was looking at the product of a hardworking past. Rather than just seeing a modern city sprawled across the countryside, I saw the work of generations. Saw the work of thousands of cloth-workers carrying bales of urine soaked wool down to the River Exe who were unaware at the time that their industry would give rise to a city of over 100,000 people. I saw the work of hundreds of stonemasons whose city walls and massive cathedral solidified the center of southwest England for centuries to come.
After appreciating all these things, I then tried to understand how all of this history fits into a modern context within Exeter, and I found two perfect examples: the Red Coat guided tours and the Lord Mayor of Exeter. During my two weeks in Exeter, some of the most passionate people that I met were the Red Coat Guides. I went on three different tours while I was there, and all of the guides on those tours were excellent. When I first got to Exeter, I wasn’t sure why all of these people would volunteer their time each year to do tours like this. As the days passed, however, I began to realize that these guides truly appreciated the history that led to the modern Exeter that they lived in. During the Murder and Mayhem tour, our tour guide Betzy described how the Blitz leveled a large portion of Exeter which was then rebuilt into the Princesshay shopping center that still exists today and provides a large attraction for the city. To me, this was a perfect example of how the past has a direct influence on the future. Overall, the Red Coat tours not only taught me the historical facts of Exeter but also how that history affects the world today.
Lord Mayor of Exeter’s Passion
Of all the people I met during my month abroad, I can honestly say I have never met a person who took as much pride in his city than the former Lord Mayor of Exeter. His description of the Guildhall was more than just a tour; it was an experience of history just as present now as the day that that Guildhall was built. While it may be easy to dismiss the position of Lord Mayor as honorary and simply ceremonial, there’s something about a £375,000 necklace that says otherwise. History gives meaning to the city of Exeter in a way that is difficult for an outsider to comprehend. It’s this kind of appreciation for history that motivates people like the Lord Mayor to take their job seriously each day. This gratitude for history motivates a city to excavate an old Roman bridge in the middle of an incredibly busy intersection rather than just pave over it, and this appreciations allows a 13th century church in the middle of the Guildhall Shopping Centre to remain standing to this day. These smaller historical buildings and creations aren’t bringing in revenues for the city like the attractions of London do. This preservation is pure appreciation, and this makes Exeter different.
Going Inside Exeter Cathedral
While appreciation for history can give meaning to a city, people must also have some sense of practicality, and I realized this while talking to Jonathan, the Dean of Exeter Cathedral. From the moment I arrived in Exeter, I wanted to see the inside of the cathedral after walking past it about a hundred times each day. When we finally went inside, I had no other words to describe what I saw other than complete speechlessness, and one of the first things that I thought was that the man in charge of this building’s oversight must have an indescribably enormous task on his hands. I fully enjoyed the interview with the Dean, and the one thing that I remember the most from the conversation was when he said that the only way to preserve a historic building was to use it. This is where the practicality comes in, and I’m sure the Dean will have tough balancing act between retaining the historical integrity of the building while still utilizing it as a means of bringing income into the city and the Cathedral itself.
Unfortunately, some may think that Exeter’s history and the Cathedral are just selling points and merely a means by which to profit. However, I met so many volunteers during my time in Exeter, whether they were the Red Coat guides or the people who volunteered their time to maintain the Cathedral. I think history has a way of preserving itself in that it appeals to the natural interests of people. It gives us a chance to understand ourselves and know why we’ve become what we’ve become. Buildings like the Cathedral provide the medium by which we communicate, and the history immortalized in that building gives the people of Exeter a glimpse of themselves. They are literally the products of what they are preserving, and that fact has to be humbling in some way. Given that Exeter played such a large role in the development of southwest England, the history of this city must have also had this sort of impact on the region as a whole.
Reliving Medieval Exeter through Michael Jeck’s Novel
Above all, I think the centerpiece of the course was reading City of Fiends and then discussing the book with its author, Michael Jecks. For me, this experience filled in the gaps of the trip and gave me a better understanding of medieval Exeter as whole. It’s one thing to read and discuss a book, but to actually experience it is something completely different. Likewise, Exeter is a perfect place for this because its history is so visible and alive. I walked the streets of Exeter more times than I could count, but each time I did, it felt like I was reliving parts of the book. Whether we were searching for the correct location of the Paffards’ house on Coombe Street or visiting the inside of St. Pancras just as one of the priests did in the book, I felt like I could actually picture the events that happened in the book. In this way, I felt like I was living the history rather than just reading it. The interview with Michael Jecks also provided a unique opportunity because we were able to meet with someone who lives with this history on a daily basis and appreciates it enough to relive the medieval period every time he writes. Overall, I think Michael Jecks provides a means by which a large number of people can experience history in a more meaningful way.
My History Study Abroad Program Reflections
All in all, the people I met during my few weeks in England all had different ways of living with history and appreciating it. While the people of modern London profit incredibly from their storied history, the people of Exeter live with their history in a much different way. The history of Exeter connects people to their pasts while still providing a means of a future. As I walked the streets of Exeter, I couldn’t help but look at the old Roman walls whenever I passed by a section. Those walls enclose something special: a glimpse into the past. Within those walls, there is a history that compels people to want to know more, and outside those walls, there is a city that owes itself to what happened within those walls many centuries ago. And in the end, it is this weight of history that connects the past to the present and will inevitably impact the future.
*Since 2015, the BCA Exeter & London program was restructured to start with two weeks in Exeter followed by one week in London.
- Christian Colo, Summer 2015 BCA Exeter & London, England and Belmont Abbey College alumnus