At the age of 34, I applied for my first US Passport.
Historically, members of my family have never left the United States, either due to lack of opportunity or a lack of interest in seeing other parts of the world.
Myself, I have always had a lurking wanderlust, a drive to learn about life in far away places, and an eagerness to see richly historic sites and structures that have survived the centuries.
In May of 2019, I decided it was time to thrust out of the all-too restrictive comfort zone and go for it.
To the Ancestral Lands
Because my ancestry is exclusively English, Scottish, and Welsh, I’ve always had a strong inclination to visit the Old Countries.
It just so happens that the man I met shortly after graduation, who gave me my first job and a career path in science, is a Briton, and had returned to his home country around 2013 after our laboratory where we worked together at the University dissolved.
But me ol’ mate is much more than a former employer, he’s a mentor, guru and a dear friend, like my own Yoda or Mr. Miyagi (and easily as eccentric). He had been inviting me for years to fly out and see him in England, and finally the opportunity came in May 2019.
Having the Mad Wizard at my service when I reached England proved to be pure magic; nothing beats having a native show you around their country and reveal all the hidden gems the place holds.
The two weeks I spent in England was a whirlwind of sight-seeing, countryside walks, meeting new friends, trying new foods, and exploring ancient places.
I’d like to share with you some of the most exciting places I went.
The persistent image of the English landscape in my naive mind was that of a cold, sparse, craggy moor sprawling beneath a comatose grey sky. What I was met with when we reached the countryside of county Oxfordshire after leaving the urban sprawl surrounding Heathrow was an ocean of green.
The Mad Wizard and his lovely wife live in a Victorian cottage adjacent to a cow pasture and situated within vast farmland. Waves of green from horizon to horizon, and large swaths of vivid yellow rape fields in the distance created a bucolic panaroma from any window in their home.
To ward off jet-lag and keep myself awake until bedtime, we decided to go for a walk in nearby Newbottle Woods, an enchanting little patch of forest outside of King’s Sutton.
As we navigated the footpath, I noticed that even the birds singing in the forest sounded foreign to me, and many species of tree and plant I had not seen in North America stood out among the foliage. The path ran parallel to a large field of dazzling yellow rapeseed blossoms, circumscribed by jagged stone walls which could have been there for decades, or centuries.
That night as I lay in the guest room of the cottage, I admired the pure silence that fell over the farmland. Only the occasional “boy racer” screaming down the road in a souped-up Japanese car momentarily jarred the senses. At home in the metro Atlanta area, you can hear a low, steady roar from nearby highways all throughout the night. The stillness of the English countryside brought a very sound and natural sleep which I hadn’t been able to achieve in quite a long time.
The next day we explored Banbury, where I was introduced to the canal system that weaves throughout England. We watched as a husband and wife, who may have been living in their slender river boat for the weekend, coordinated a pass through an aquatic gate called a lock. The nimble older woman hopped from the boat, raised a heavy timber cross-bar using a crank, and manipulated an apparatus that shifted water levels on either side of the barrier.
Banbury gave me a look at life in an ordinary English market-town, although there were many historical gems. We checked out Banbury Cross, a museum, and a Masonic-esque church with ancient tombs. The church-grounds had a strange air but some interesting and very old things like a weathered baptismal font and a moss-covered burial slab with an effigy in the style of the Knights Templar.
Most people out and about were friendly and relaxed, ducking in and out of small shops, cafes, and pubs, or chatting in groups on street corners. I was struck by the amount of pedestrian traffic compared to most places in the States. I found out later that owning a car and affording the outrageous fees to park at a place as simple as a shopping mall were small luxuries to many people in Britain.
I was told that I brought “gorgeous weather” with me from the States, as my first few days in the UK had seen exceptionally clear skies and warm sunshine. However, we had terrifically traditional English weather (overcast skies and pissing rain) the day we journeyed to Warwick, a county town in central England near the River Avon.
Because the weather was lousy, we nearly decided to call off our trip, but I’m very glad we decided to go; Warwick has a unique and very Middle Ages feel that fascinated me.
The town features loads of black and whites, which are the quintessential timber-lined Medieval and Tudor-era houses. Some of these structures are so old that the timbers bow and bulge, slightly distorting the facades which somehow lends to a fairy-tale-esque aesthetic.
A museum, small shops, corner cafes, inns and pubs insulate the streets. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, I highly recommend going about on foot, if able.
The West Gate is defined by an impressive Medieval clock tower that can be seen from many vantage points all around the the town. Adjacent to West Gate is Lord Leycester Hospital, which is a charity home for retired servicemen, dating back to the late 1500’s.
We hiked through the city and made way to Warwick Castle, which is incredibly impressive, and equally as majestic as it is formidable
Warwick Castle started as a timber motte and bailey stronghold built by William the Conqueror in ~1068 AD. In the following centuries, stone structures like the colossal battlements, gate house, barbican and keep were built up resulting in the behemoth seen today.
The first approach to the castle after passing through the ticket gates is worth the admission price alone. Walking down a winding pathway, you are confronted with Warwick Castle’s towering battlements looming over the emerald hill which it is strategically built upon.
The brooding sky, drizzling rain, and the cawing of crows really evoked a Medieval atmosphere and enhanced the castle’s imposing aura.
At the gate house and barbican, you can look upwards to see a series of grates, called machicolations, just above your head in the floor of the battlements which would have been used to pour boiling oil on enemies attempting to infiltrate the castle.
If that weren’t deterring enough, archer’s arrow slits perforate every few feet of the battlements, allowing easy shooting of any invaders—I seriously pity the fool who would have tried to storm this castle back in the day!
Passing through the gate house you see the central court, and the austere keep—the main living quarters. Inside the keep the Great Hall awaits, adorned with suits of armor, lances, broadswords, and other implements of Middle Ages warfare.
Windows at the far end of the hall offer stunning views of the rushing River Avon.
Throughout the keep, wax figures of famous persons occupy rooms furnished appropriately for the various distinct time periods the castle has passed through, from Medieval to Tudor to Victorian. One large room featured Henry VIII with all of his wives—an impossible arrangement winning snarky comments from castle-goers. Another parlor room presents a young Winston Churchill in late 19th century garb leading a discourse with two other prominent figures.
Several rooms exhibit art and artifacts of the era, and there is even a small chapel where you can sit in the old pews.
Elsewhere on castle grounds, you can explore the Mound pathway and castle wall, which allows some fantastic views of the keep, Warwick, and the River Avon.
Beyond the Mound is a small clearing where peacocks strut freely across the grass and fly up to perch in pairs on nearby battlements.
Falconer’s Quest is an interesting attraction that plays at set times on the river’s edge. You can watch as falconers in Medieval attire summon enormous birds of prey like owls, condors, and sea eagles that swoop and soar over the crowds. Such birds would have been used in the Middle Ages for hunting game in a time-honored sport.
Warwick and its eponymous castle was easily one of my favorite outings on this trip. Going around on foot through the town, along the canals, and to the castle-grounds really allowed me to be immersed in the place and its character, versus hopping around on a tour bus.
I have a special connection to the village of Nunney, in county Somerset, though I’d never been there before this trip.
When I researched my genealogy as part of an extra-credit assignment in college, I went really, really far back, in large part thanks to the extensive research done by a fellow named Gary Benton Prather.
I have an uncommon surname, Prater, which my dad’s family had always assumed might have been German. As it happens, the name is first found in the Roman occupation of Britain (a derivative of the Latin title praetor), and my ancestors had a rich history in the counties of Somerset and Wiltshire from about the 1000’s to the 1700’s.
The Praters were part of many allied families which included Norman and Welsh gentry who owned several properties and estates around the South of England. One such property was Nunney Castle, built ca. 1370 by the knight Sir John Delamare, in the village of Nunney, county Somerset.
Looking at the pictures below, you’ll notice the castle is in ruins. This is because around 1645 my ~12th great-uncle, Richard Prater, refused to abandon the Prater family’s Roman Catholic tradition at the King’s command during the English Civil War. The result was a decisive cannon blast through the front wall of the castle and forceful removal of the Praters. This rebellious tendency seems to have survived many generation of Prater right down to my own father!
The moat and the hollowed husk of this once grand place have been well-maintained by English Heritage. Standing inside the ruins, and using a bit of imagination, one can envision where the timbers had stretched from wall-to-wall to form floors, and where a series of hearths on each of the floors might have been the centerpieces of the bedchambers. Even impressions of spiraling staircases can be made out in the shells of the towers.
Standing proud above the trees just across the street, a church bell-tower could be spied from the windows of Nunney Castle—this was the Church of All Saints, our next stop.
I felt such a deep tranquility on the church grounds—the air was cool and a gentle breeze coursed among the trees, bluebells, and tombstones. There was a definite, impalpable sense of peace enveloping the church, and I wasn’t the only one who felt it.
The doors were open to anyone to come in and look around, or pray. A lectern with the golden eagle of John the Apostle presided over the pews, and an altar room was positioned in the back. A large, wooden crucifix with a beautiful carving of Christ hung in the arched doorway to the altar room.
Obviously, religion was very important to the Praters. Inside of this church, where no doubt my ancestors worshiped, Richard Prater and his wife are entombed alongside another related family, the Paulets, as well as the castle builder Sir John Delamere. The remains are entombed within stone slabs adorned with effigies of their likenesses. The tombs rest beneath a large window, just to the side of the church organ.
In the pews of the church there are cushions along the floor placed such that worshipers can kneel for prayer. I sat in one of the pews and felt compelled somehow to kneel and pray.
I’m in many ways Christian (albeit a very unorthodox one), and the story of Christ resonates very strongly with me. Although I’m not a churchgoer, I knelt quietly for several minutes in an almost meditative way, asking for inner peace, clarity, and strength. Perhaps it was all out of reverence for this place where generations of people, not just my ancestors, came to unload their own spiritual burdens, or maybe there was a greater spirit beckoning me?
Nunney was a very special experience, and would have been even if I had no genealogical connection to the place. If you’re out and about in Somerset, I’d highly recommend a stop through Nunney for an afternoon, and lunch at The George (which I’ve read is named for my 13th great-grandfather, George Prater, Esq.).
The city of Bath gets its name from the public baths that were founded in ~60 AD by the Roman Empire. This spa was built on natural hot springs and the settlement that sprung up around it was know by the name Aquae Sulis in Roman times.
The bathhouse serves as a museum collecting loads of artifacts from the Roman occupation of Aquae Sulis, including sculptures, mosaics, implements, and human remains.
Certain chambers of the bathhouse still exhibit the basic structure of a particularly ingenious Roman invention, the hypocaust—a raised floor through which heated air could be directed to warm the room.
I really enjoyed having a glimpse back in time at Roman Brittania.
Immediately adjacent to the baths is Bath Abbey. The site dates back to the 7th century where it began as a simple monastery granted by Anglo-Saxon king Osric to a local abbess. It saw many architectural mutations and realizations through the Norman Conquest on into Victorian Times, manifesting in the aesthetic marvel seen today.
The Abbey caught me totally off guard as we rounded the corner by the entrance to the baths—this building is an absolute architectural masterpiece, and as an artist, I couldn’t stop snapping photographs of it.
Every foot of the facade was composed with beautiful symmetry, and I spent time picking out each detailed frieze and ornate window. Most prominent, there were twin motifs of Jacob’s Ladder, with angels climbing their way to the tops, framing the front of the abbey.
Walking in to this magnificent structure I stood in awe of the fanning, vaulted ceilings, vivid stained-glass, and the resonating power of the massive church organ’s music which rumbled in the stone beneath my feet.
We met a very friendly priest who showed us around, and pointed out the exact places where many historical figures once stood for coronations or marriages. On the way out of the Abbey, I was somehow compelled to buy a wooden San Damiano crucifix which had leaped out at me from the shelves of the gift shop.
The majesty of the Abbey speaks very much to the centuries in which the Church was such a powerful and influential presence in civilization; when God was the only entity higher in authority than the kings and queens of those ages past.
Two days before I was set to depart we made the plan to tackle sightseeing in Oxford.
“Where in Oxford is the University?” I’d asked with certain naïveté.
“Oxford is the University, pretty much the whole thing,” the Mad Wiz chuckled.
We traveled by train from Banbury Station to Oxford, giving me a chance to see more of the countryside and some of the small towns streaming by the windows. The Mad Wiz and I chatted philosophy and life as we were carried along to our destination.
Oxford is a visually stunning place; this deeply historical city is a sprawling labyrinth of ancient academic buildings, shops, pubs, private gardens, offices, businesses, museums, galleries, and even a covered market (think a shopping mall that dates back to the 18th century).
We hiked across several blocks and reached the Sheldonian Theatre with its sentries of eerie stone busts. From there we visited the Bodleian Library, Oxford’s oldest research library with roots in the 14th century.
Further on, we stopped to peruse the Ashmolean Museum (free admission!) which was spectacular, and one could easily spend an entire afternoon peering into the eras and eons of artifacts on display. Relics and remnants from the Middle Ages of Europe, ancient Egypt, and archaic civilizations I’d never even heard of loaded the shelves, walls and cases. Roman and Greek statues populated an entire wing of their own, and I was actually a bit overwhelmed by the size of the imposing human figures looming over us.
After the local Five Guys tried to sell us a hamburger for £8 each, we settled for lunch in the famous Eagle & Child Pub. This was the meet-up place of The Inklings, a post-WWII circle of legendary authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis (Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, respectively). The atmosphere was great, the fish finger sandwich good, but the service terribly slow (something I noticed in general in English pubs).
From there we trekked to Christ Church College, one of the oldest colleges in Oxford. If you’re a Harry Potter fan and have had daydreams about Hogwarts, Christ Church is as close as you’ll get outside of the Universal Studios attraction. As a matter of fact, many locations in the first Harry Potter films were sourced from composite shots of varying building facades, corridors and dining halls in Oxford’s Christ Church and Magdalen Colleges.
A small gift shop in Christ Church really milked the Harry Potter connection (as did every gift shop on every Oxford corner), but also had some Alice in Wonderland memorabilia. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice and her adventures, was a mathematics lecturer at his alma mater Christ Church starting in ca. 1855. I picked up a small copy of Alice in Wonderland for my daughter, for when she gets ready to read chapter books in the coming years. I intend to write a meaningful note to her on the inside cover.
A Word About English Food
I vehemently disagree with the opinion that English food is “horrible” or “bland”.
Coronation chicken, fish ‘n’ chips, ploughman’s lunch, ginger beer, fish finger sandwich, custard tarts, ciders, and the Full English Breakfast were all really delicious.
The only thing I truly didn’t like was the time-tested Marmite … according to older Britons, it’s sort of something you’d have to have grown up on to really appreciate!
What a Trip!
Among other places I visited were Sulgrave Manor (home of George Washington’s grandfather), Frome, Evenley Wood Garden, and Bletchley Park (base of operations for the WWII code-breakers and mathematics genius Alan Turing). We also went on a small pub crawl through the working class town of Bicester with a witty and charming postman friend of the Wiz.
I was honored to be invited to the large estate home of one of my host’s lifelong friends, which was the abode of many loving, accepting, intelligent people brought together either by blood or friendship. I was introduced to a friendly Scotsman there who was an experienced fisherman. He offered to take me to a nearby pond on a private estate for an evening of angling. With the wisdom of the master fisherman, I landed a strange red-eyed fish called a tench as my new friend cheered “good lad! Good lad!”. He told me in decades past the tench was called “the doctor fish” because of supposed medicinal properties inherent to the coating of slime it sports. The sun set on us soon after (it wasn’t getting dark until after 9 pm), but I grabbed many beautiful images of the fishing spot.
I left England with a host of new friends and incredible memories.
Adding to My Bandwidth
There was a significant expansion that occurred in my thinking, one that my psyche has long craved, by the end of my time in England which I think was more valuable than any souvenir or photograph.
I think of every person’s mental capacity much like a radio receiver. Knowledge exists on an infinitely wide spectrum, and how much of that spectrum you are aware of or can tune into in your lifetime is your bandwidth.
Of course no one ever gets it all—that is an impossible feat for anything outside of what you could call God. But each of us starts somewhere on that spectrum and widens it as we grow.
Aside from experiencing the deep history, unique aesthetics and the thrill of novelty, I learned that traveling abroad is a potent way to increase your bandwidth.
Without actually immersing yourself in another culture or place, you can only ever have an informed opinion, which can often times be quite far from accurate. You miss out on new knowledge, new experience, new impressions, new friendships and the chance to learn from other rhythms of life.
I do realize that I was extremely fortunate to experience England with a group of native Britons, affording me a chance for full immersion outside of the typical on-rails tourist arrangement.
It goes without saying, I can’t wait to go back!