Apr 16, 2017

Blythburgh's Cathedral of the Marshes

I was lucky enough to visit England and France four times before moving to Paris for eight months during my junior year of college: once on a family holiday, once on a summer study program, and twice on choir tours. Each time - and, obviously, especially on the choir tours - we visited lots of churches and cathedrals, many dating back hundreds of years. (Parts of St Albans, just north of London, were built in the 11th century!) But I was spoiled by my cathedral in Washington, and I didn't truly appreciate Europe's churches until I started studying medieval history and art in college.

Because the National Cathedral is so big - it's the second-largest in the States and the sixth-largest in the world - and it was my standard for what a church should be, I thought that a house of worship had to be overwhelming to induce awe. It wasn't until I lived in Paris and literally stumbled on churches like Saint Severin and Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, both on the Left Bank in Paris between the Cluny and Shakespeare & Company, that I realized how powerful architectural intimacy could be.

That's one of my favorite things about the churches in the English countryside: they're everywhere, these little jewel boxes, and they inspire this sense of absolute wonder and mystery. It's so easy to imagine Suffolk in the Middle Ages, when the church was the center of a community and the beauty of its architecture was evidence to the villagers that God was with the men who built it and, indeed, still in the church with the worshippers.

We drove past the village of Blythburgh, Jon's mum and Jon and I, on our way to Southwold on our first day in Suffolk a few weeks ago, and my mother-in-law made an offhand comment about the pretty church on the estuary. Naturally, I asked if we could stop to take a look!

Holy Trinity Church - also known as the Cathedral of the Marshes - is built on one of the oldest Christian sites in England. In the Domesday Book of 1087, Blythburgh is listed as a wealthy royal burgh. However, the town was already probably past its most prosperous days as a result of plague, the wars abroad, and the rise of other trading centers nearby when construction of the current church building was begun in the 15th century. Holy Trinity is nonetheless breathtaking - and largely untouched by more modern "upgrades," thanks to the restrained repairs in later centuries. As Simon Knott of suffolkchurches.co.uk explains, "Here is the late medieval Suffolk imagination writ large, as large as it gets, and not overwritten by the Anglican triumphalism of the 19th century... It is so fascinating, so stunningly beautiful, by virtue of a factor that is rare in Anglican parish churches: sheer neglect."

The intricacy of the exterior of the church - with the windows' delicate tracery and the mottled colors of the stones that make up the walls - provides quite a contrast to the seeming simplicity of the interior. You can see the tracery from the pews, of course, but the glass is clear and the nave is wide, punctuated by unadorned pillars. Look up, though, past the beautifully carved rood screen to the ceiling, where wooden angels perch at the peak of each vault. The whole effect is one of light and openness and peace.

Today, Blythburgh's church is still an active Anglican house of worship, and some concerts in the Aldeburgh Festival are performed there. It was such a lovely treat to explore the church and the grounds - a perfect "welcome back" from my beloved Suffolk!

Mar 29, 2017

Exploring Cambridge: Day One

The reason behind our quick trip to England the other week was a joyous occasion: the wedding of our friends Sam and Georgina! Sam went to Cambridge for university, so their wedding was at Trinity Hall, his old college. As Jon was one of the ushers, we took the train from train from Suffolk east to the shire on Friday in time for the boys to all have a late lads' lunch together. (They went for sushi and the lads included a toddler. I like this phase of our lives.) After dropping Jon off at the restaurant, I made my way to our lovely airBnB to get settled.

I had time to kill before the wedding rehearsal that evening, so I volunteered to walk into town to pick up Jon's morning suit - really, I just wanted an excuse to explore! I'd been to Cambridge a few times before on choir tours, but my most recent visit was in 2003 and the medievalist in me was desperate to get reacquainted with centuries-old architecture.

From retracing my steps on Google maps, I'm pretty sure the photos below are from Christ College, Sidney Sussex College, and Jesus College (in that order), bookended by pictures of some of the sweet houses I passed on my way into and out of the city center. Can you imagine living amongst all that history? Sometimes I get overwhelmed just with everything that DC holds - on Saturday, I was brought almost to tears as Jon and I passed DAR Constitution Hall and I told him about Marian Anderson - so I'm not sure I could manage Cambridge! Luckily, the real estate market being what it is, that isn't an option anyway, so I'll just have to settle for reliving this visit.

Mar 24, 2017

The Suffolk Shore

Despite growing up just a few miles from the Potomac, less than an hour's drive from Annapolis, and within easy day-trip distance from the Delaware beaches, I wasn't really a water person for most of my life. I love swimming - my mother will have you know that I was the youngest Shark at summer camp - but I felt no great pull to be out on the blue.

And then I met Jon.

Jon comes from a sailing family. He's been on boats since he was a baby, he was a pre-teen when he was first shoved out on his own, and he went to a naval school from the age of 13. The little village in Suffolk where he grew up (and where his mum still lives) is about 20 minutes away from the east coast of England, where they have both the River Alde and the North Sea on which to catch the wind.

The first time I met Jon's parents, eight and a half years ago and three weeks after we'd started dating, they took me out to the yacht club to help them put away their boat for the season. It was November and the weather was bitter; I remember standing in the driving rain as a gale howled around us, dressed entirely inappropriately, wondering what I'd gotten myself into. (Needless to say, any "help" I provided was negligible.) But it's been smooth sailing - pardon the pun - since then, and no trip to Suffolk is complete without a visit to one of the seaside towns near Jon's mum's home.

The closest is Aldeburgh, and we did spend last Friday morning there with Jon's mum and aunt, but we headed to Southwold on Thursday afternoon for just a quick amble through the streets and along the beach. We got there a bit late to pop into too many of the shops and we didn't venture out to the famous pier, but we soaked up the sun and fantasized about which houses we'd claim as our own and bemoaned the ill-advised loss of Jon's late granny's beach hut. The smell of the saltwater and the feel of the breeze were glorious - the perfect antidote to the previous 12 hours of travel!