London is thick with history that’s just piled all over itself. Newer parts of London are built right on top of historic places. The Tate Modern is just a few buildings down from the Globe Theatre (which itself is a replica of the historic theatre).
Living in the West of the United States, I don’t tend to see historic buildings much older than the 1800s at the earliest. This is not to negate the rich and varied history that Native Americans have that is very much present in these areas, though this fascinating history unfortunately tends to be hidden from the public eye.
Not so in London. The city has such a present history, and so much work has been done—and is being done—to preserve that history. Even places that seem impossibly old to an American like me seem almost brand new because of the painstaking work that has been put into them.
Take Hampton Court, for example. I visited on my second day in England. Google tells me that construction on the building began in 1515, two and a half centuries before the United States was its own country. And yet, touring the huge palace, everything felt structurally sound. Everything was clean. Everything sparkled. Reenactors breathed life into the place and water flowed through a courtyard fountain. The grounds and gardens were meticulous and vibrant.
Hampton Court was huge and alive. This love of history impressed me a great deal, because to me it seems hard to get people to care deeply about things like history these days. I don’t mean to sound curmudgeonly, but I’m saying this because I feel it myself. I enjoy going to places like Hampton Court, but I’m not sure I could say that I really care about them.
I’m impressed that somehow society has come together to enable places like Hampton Court to be well-cared-for and remain open. It’s clear that the society of London (or if not all of it, at least a section of society) cares enough about its history to fight for the care of these places.
On the other hand, unlike Hampton court which I was merely ambivalent about, I was stoked to go to the Globe to see Shakespearian actors perform Henry V. Before fall semester of 2018, I was doubtful at best when it came to Shakespeare. Then I took an excellent class that had me read about 10 plays and see performances of all the plays we read. The combination of insightful class discussions and an extremely knowledgeable Shakespearian scholar as a professor helped me learn why Shakespeare is still so beloved after all these years.
Thus, I was thrilled to be a groundling in the Globe during the opening weekend of Henry V. I loved being close enough to the stage to rest my arms on it. Henry V was one of the plays I’d studied in my Shakespeare class, so I was already familiar with the plot and excited to see a different rendition of the play. And I was not disappointed. The play itself was phenomenal. King Henry even shouted directly at me (eye contact and everything!) during two different dramatic moments, one during which he was only a couple feet away.
As I reflect on my study abroad experience as a whole, seeing a performance at the Globe has stuck with me as perhaps my favorite memory. The Globe is the perfect combination of old history and literature that people still care about and newness, excitement, and liveliness. Just like London, it has centuries of history built into the very ground.