October snow reminds me of The Long Winter

In the last five days, we’ve gotten several inches of snow in Southern Minnesota. Some of it has melted off as fast as it arrived. But the early arrival of the white stuff has made me think about Laura Ingalls Wilder and her book, The Long Winter.

Of all the Little House books, The Long Winter is the one I’ve read the most. It was something of a comfort book for me when I was growing up. That might seem a little odd; the book details how the Ingalls family survived the winter of 1880-1881, during which months of successive blizzards kept trains from running to the new town of De Smet, South Dakota. By May, when the first train came, the town had run out of food. Many had been surviving on sourdough bread made from crushed seed wheat. They had no wheat left to plant for crops in the spring.

I think the reason this one was my favorite is because it deals with the struggle. It shows how the family was resilient, how they pulled together to survive, and how even when the days were darkest, they could sing to bring cheer to the long nights. It’s about survival. It’s about rising up to meet life’s challenges. And in my own darkest days, it’s been a comfort to see the Ingalls thrive despite the length of that terrible winter.

The mantra Laura uses in the story is one I’ve come to use myself. “February is a short month, and March will be spring.” It’s a reminder that we can get through anything, and there is light, and spring, on the other side.

I truly hope that my own October snow does not indicate a winter that lasts till May. Even if it does, I will remember that February is a short month, and March will be spring. This, too, shall pass.

On Favorite Black Authors

I’ve written before about some of the seminal influences on my writing, but I want to focus today on work by black authors I’d consider critical to my understanding of race, culture, class, and narrative. Regular readers know that, as an historian, I consider history to be something of a symphony, where all cultures and voices need to be present in order to make the music.

As a child growing up in a predominantly white area, my first exposure to African-American culture came through my television set. The first book on my list is one I first listened to on PBS’ Reading Rainbow, read by LeVar Burton. The book, Striped Ice Cream by Joan Lexau, was about a little girl who, like me, worried that she wouldn’t get the birthday present she wanted because her family was poor. I related to her on that level, and only peripherally noticed that her skin color was different from mine.

As I grew older, my aunt, who lived in and among the historically black neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul, introduced me to one of my favorite authors: Maya Angelou. The first work I read of hers was I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and I rank it as transformative for me. I inhaled every other book and work I could get my hands on by Ms. Angelou, and I grieved when she passed. Her stories about growing up as a black woman, living as an artist, and working as an activist electrified me.

I already knew I wanted to be a journalist; Angelou’s work made me understand that the stories I told needed to come from all segments of society. She opened my eyes to the assumptions I’d internalized from my limited interactions with people from other backgrounds, colors, creeds, and cultures, and in demonstrating how she found her voice, I learned to find mine.

From there, it was Alice Walker. Toni Morrison. Audre Lorde. Alex Haley. Ralph Ellison. bell hooks. Zora Neale Hurston. It was Oprah, whose rise as a journalist offering space for her viewers to tell their own stories was stunning to witness. I read the works of Martin Luther King, Jr., and I started to read an up-and-coming columnist from the Miami Herald named Leonard Pitts, Jr.

I have been extraordinarily busy in the last five years, personally, but my original passion to find my own voice, and now, as an educator, helping others find theirs, remains. Education doesn’t stop as we get older. On my to-be-read list right now are works by former President Barack Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama, and novels by Pitts, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2004. His latest novel, The Last Thing You Surrender, is on my e-reader right now.

I can’t honestly say this is a comprehensive list, in any fashion. In thinking about this topic, I Googled “favorite works by black authors,” and my list of new works to read easily tripled. As we move forward in this moment, let’s remember the importance of making our voices heard, and elevating those voices that could otherwise be lost.

To tell a story: Ways of approaching history

Thinking about “What’s in the Box?” has helped me focus a little on my other historical research.

When I first got the box, I was working on a large-scale history project. In fact, it might have been too large to do justice to the topic. It came from a place of wanting to learn about and share a story about how farm women in the United States lived and worked on their farms in the early to mid-twentieth century, rooted in my grief over the loss of my own grandmother just before I started my doctoral program and a parallel life-long interest in Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was writing for and about farm women at the time.

As with many questions that tackle aspects of women’s history, the first step had to be looking for their voices and stories. Several options could be employed. The first, which I used, is asking people for their own stories, informally networking to see if there was some written record that could be used to uncover the past. The biggest challenge in uncovering stories of the largely voiceless is that lack of voice; once many people have passed on, there’s no record they’ve even been a part of the past.

As a journalist, I loved to tell people’s stories. I learned in my teens that everyday stories had just as much impact and interest as the big news of the day, through work in state journalism workshops and camps. One of my first features that got significant attention told the story of a cleaning woman, Lorraine, in the dorm in which I was staying for camp. It ignited for me a passion to tell the stories that remained untold. And as a journalist before I became a historian-in-training, I thought to look first toward newspaper stories to see if I could find farm women’s voices from the period I was interested in, which started in 1911.

So my first project, in a classroom under the direction of Dr. Hazel Dicken-Garcia, was a paper that examined discourse about farm women in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. As a starting point, I used the first known publication date of Wilder’s column in the Missouri Ruralist, so that I had a known date when at least one farm woman was actively writing and engaged in the farming community. As an end point, I used the last known publication date for Wilder’s column, in 1926. That left fifteen years of Press coverage to comb through, so I decided to be methodical about it. I reviewed papers from harvest and planting seasons over that fifteen years, looking for farm women’s voices. I went through everything for that fifteen years.

And found exactly one item that directly mentioned farm women.

One.

In fifteen years.

I learned several things: One, that farm women truly were going voiceless in the mainstream media during this period. For some reason, this surprised me then, but with time, experience, and further research, I’m no longer surprised by this result. Two, that the Minnesota State Fair then, as now, recognized the role of farm women in the rural communities as being significant; the item that was reported came from its grounds, where new “rest room” facilities had been built on Machinery Hill for women to use. And three, that the lack of coverage in mainstream media didn’t mean farm women were totally voiceless; the item also interviewed the female editor of a magazine called The Farmer’s Wife.

In the absence of mainstream coverage, alternate and dissident press will appear, as this one did.

The Farmer’s Wife, I discovered, was a magazine published for many years in St. Paul. It is archived at the Magrath Library on the St. Paul Campus of the University of Minnesota.

The seeds of my dissertation are planted there.

Because of the lack of coverage, I realized I needed to discover the larger story of American farm women first. While some research had been conducted at this point, no one had looked at farming magazines at the scale I decided to try. I ended up looking at six different magazines–three farming, three national mainstream press–over fifty years that marked the shift in the United States from being mostly rural to being mostly urban: 1910 to 1960. Later, I sought out other means of finding these voices, including interviews and correspondence with women who lived and worked on farms during this period. It’s during this phase of the research, which was conducted to add to the dissertation for the book that was published in 2009, that I encountered the box.

On its face, I couldn’t use the materials within it for the research I was conducting at that time. The notebooks, at a glance, were fascinating, but ultimately beyond the period I was researching. I set it aside.

Now, looking at it again, I realize the box calls for a different style of storytelling. It’s not material that would lend itself to a large-scale project. It’s more in line with a biography–a piece of history that illuminates one person’s life that in some way tells a larger story about that person’s role in history. It calls to mind Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book, A Midwife’s Tale, which started with a similar diary chronicle to tease out a rich biography of Martha Ballard, a colonial midwife who lived in Maine and kept her diary from 1785 to 1812. (It won a Pulitzer Prize; it’s a brilliant book that I highly recommend.)

I don’t know what I’m going to do with those diaries yet. It’s a different sort of story, a different era from what I’m used to working in. And yet it’s very, very familiar.

The Ephemera of History: The box yields some secrets

I love handling the artifacts of history. There is something about laying hands on something people ages ago owned, or held, or wrote, that inspires awe. I feel connected with these people whom I will never meet, in a way that helps me to “see” their stories.

Opening the box the first time, more than a decade ago, felt like that. At the time, I didn’t have a place for these things, so I kept them carefully sealed in the box to preserve them for the future. And now, I’m opening it back up.

The letter on top originally came from my desk. A query had been sent to me about whether I’d like the materials, and I’d responded with a note that I’d love them. That I would make copies and return them. Unfortunately, when they came, there was no return address and the original letter had been lost. (If this was you, I’m still ready to keep my promise.)

Handwritten on the bottom of the letter: “Here they are–nothing special yet they show the hard work Grandma Elsie [middle name, last name] did even in her 50s.”

I can’t quite make out the middle and last names–they’re long, and I could make a good guess, but I’m not ready to name the person who created these materials yet. The next set of pictures, though, have legible names: Henry and Selma Kolb, next to a booklet titled “THE STORY of an EPOCH in the LIFE HISTORY of a SEGMENT of the KOLB FAMILY.”

Then came a general genealogy of the Ernst Kolb family that begins in 1761 and ends in 1961. I immediately am reminded that I want to get these materials back to their family, if someone in the family wants them. The historian in me can’t imagine they wouldn’t.

Next, I found an album bound in cardboard, labeled “Memorial Day, 1899” for Dist. V, Meeme, by Fred. K. Kolb, Teacher, with a clue–two large class photos printed by H.C. Benke in Wells, Wis. Then, a newspaper clipping from 1974 about the farm on which my sender’s grandmother lived and worked from 1892-1983.

Then, I find the notebooks.

notebooks

Ledgers, “theme” books, and familiar spiral bound notebooks filled with observations that began in 1955 and ended in 1978. The first entry reads,  “Jan. 1955. New year went to church. In P.M. went to Karls and in eve called on Ewald  O—. Sun to arrive for dinner. Mon Jan 3, 42 [degrees], scrubbed chicken coops.”

There’s a note every few days, written, I think, by the “Grandma Elsie” referred to by my sender, whose name can only be read as “Judy.” I glanced through several entries, then forced myself to stop. I can easily be lost in archives, and this one seems rich. A baby born in July 1956. A cutting of grain. Checks received for crops. All recorded here by someone who thought keeping such records was important.

I do wonder if she wrote anything before 1955, and what happened to those diaries. If Elsie did live and work on that farm for more than a hundred years, retiring in 1974, then I have to wonder why I only have twenty years of diaries in the box. Maybe the rest were thrown out? Maybe these notebooks were only hastily rescued by a granddaughter who hoped someone might use them? Maybe there are more.

Heather, my partner at Documentary Site, couldn’t read any of the handwriting. But it’s mostly legible to me, classic Palmer Method-style handwriting familiar because it’s my grandmother’s, too. It’s the style of handwriting taught in the one-room schools in Wisconsin, the style first taught to me in third grade in Mrs. Weinzerl’s room in Luck, Wis. Already, in 1980, it was going out of style; my cousins in Madison, Wis. during the same period learned the kind of upright cursive that starts with forming print letters with small hooks.

So, as I said, I can make a guess as to the last two names, but my next step is to try the permutations of those names in Google to see if I can triangulate my search for the rightful owners of this box. I know the farm was in Wisconsin. But at the time of my research, I lived in Kansas, and I was under the impression that the owner of the box lived fairly locally.

It’s a bit of a mystery, but now I have a place to start.

Remembering the Peshtigo Fire

October 8, 1871–Fire rampaged through northeastern Wisconsin, wiping out the city of Peshtigo and claiming the lives of an estimated 2,400 people. Though the fire occurred on the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, with greater loss of life, very little is known about it outside of Wisconsin.

That conundrum (How can something so devastating be so forgotten?) led me down many paths over the course of my career. My imagination first got caught up with the fire in fourth grade, when I wrote about it in an illustrated manuscript that took a prize at the Wisconsin State Fair. But later on, when I became a reporter in that same region, covering the city government for the city and towns of Peshtigo, I was able to dig deeply into that history and report about it in a series of stories that ran the week that began with Monday, Oct. 7, 1996, commemorating the 125th anniversary of the fire.

I started looking through the clips of the series recently, which I’ve kept as examples of enterprise reporting and as groundwork for more potential research. I wrote the story in five parts, one for each day that week, with Tuesday’s pieces focusing on the story of the fire itself and published on its anniversary. Those pieces were edited together and picked up by the Associated Press for national distribution, one of the few of my early works for which that happened.

The entire week also represents the first time I allowed myself to spread my wings as writer, using descriptive language to tell a story that few knew well, and fewer still know well today.

“Modern day Peshtigo bustles with life and industry. People in the city smile as others pass. A thriving industrial park attracts the cream of business and industry. Badger Park beckons the lunch-hour patron as well as the children of the nearby elementary school … It’s such a pretty town. With such a horrifying history.” (Lauters, EagleHerald, Oct. 7, 1996)

I went on to describe the town, the drought, and the lack of communication lines from the north to the south because of wild fires that were breaking out due to construction of railroad lines through the dry woods. I used original source material that included local residents’ recollections of survivor stories, survivor diaries, and my own newspaper’s archives. I finished that day with the line from an editorial by 1871 Eagle editor Luther Noyes: “Fires are still raging all over the country. The raw air of autumn is being well-cooked by fire.” (Eagle, Sept. 24, 1871)

Noyes’ words were prophetic. On Tuesday, Oct. 8, 1871, as the Rev. Peter Pernin writes in his diary, a muffled roaring sound came from the west. He knew instantly that he needed to head to the Peshtigo River. Mill workers on the east side of the river already were battling sparks and flames there, but by 9 p.m., most workers’ families were in bed.

Then flames rose from the rest along Oconto Avenue, and engulfed everything in their path. Bells rang all over town. As many as could do so headed for that same river, hoping that the water, shallow with the drought, could save their lives. Pernin writes about struggling on the bridge over the River, as people from both sides of it tried to get to the other, hoping for safety, and that he managed to push himself and his cart–containing the Tabernacle that housed the Sacrament–into the water itself, immersing them both.

“I came out of that river about half past three in the morning, and from that time I was in a very different condition, both morally and physically, to that in which I had previously been,” Pernin wrote.

Pernin wasn’t alone. Fire conditions were said to be so hot, many people simply blazed up when the flames hit them. A final death count would be impossible for this reason, and because no one knew just how many people were in the region at the time.  A census would show only homesteaders and citizens; the area, however, was filled with railway workers and others who’d just arrived from Chicago for the work promised in the region.

Nothing but ashes, and a single green-timber framed house, remained in the entire city.

I interviewed numerous descendants of fire survivors, and their stories ran the next day. I wrapped the series with what amounted to an annotated bibliography of sources for those who were interested in learning more.

The experience fired my imagination. Resources were sent from Wisconsin to Chicago, to aid residence there, before the state government even knew about their own devastation. The governor’s wife, in residence in Madison while her husband headed to Chicago, commandeered an aid train and sent it north when word reached her.

The papers covered Chicago.

The history illustrated numerous things for me, but one thing was made manifestly clear: Coverage of events can only occur if someone knows the event is happening, and if that event is judged to be significant enough to an audience.

Chicago as a large city, wiped out, remained the story of the day. The small town wiped out in northern Wisconsin hardly rated, in comparison, despite the loss of life. Already in 1871, regional differences in urban and rural markets for coverage became apparent.

But it’s important to remember the tragedy at Peshtigo for numerous reasons. The city today, is small, but it thrives. The region prospers. Out of the ashes, hope survived.

Reflections on Research, and the Culture War being played out in Media

I’ve been updating the web site today, organizing pages (there’s now a page for Research in the UK and another for Laura Ingalls Wilder posts), and it made me consider the trajectory of my research thus far.

One of my particular early challenges was what appeared to be an inability to settle on a research area. It’s fairly clear by the volume and variety of subjects that I’ve written about that I enjoy a wide variety of interests. It took some time for me to settle on what has become the through-line, however, and that is actually fairly simple:

How do people underserved by traditional media platforms use media to build their own communities, bolster their own political power, and effect change?

“Underserved” is an interesting word. To use it means acknowledging that traditional mainstream media do not serve the same function for particular classes and groups of people that they do for those who are in control of the messages spread by it. It implies that mainstream media reinforce a status quo when it comes to power and control. Thus, people who recognize that they are not served by traditional media turn to other means by which they can get messages into the morass of mediated communication.

Today, this can be achieved through the construction of a relatively cheap web site, the networking of varied social media platforms, and the ability of those who want to get a non-mainstream message out to find like-minded people to help with those networks.

Such sites still face a credibility problem, because, of course, one way to maintain the status quo is to immediately downplay, discredit, and label messages that contradict the status quo as “not credible.” (Or, perhaps, “fake.”)

Originally, I was interested in how new media platforms (when they were new, in the late 1990s) would work alongside their traditional counterparts (newspapers, magazines.)

But as I dug more deeply, I realized that how media platforms are used, and for what purpose, is as important, or more so, than the mere fact that they exist. Local newspapers, for example, exist to provide news and information of local interest to the community, to build communal structures for communication across the area, and to provide common ground for discussion in public spaces.

National and international news platforms are meant to do the same, in a larger sphere, reinforcing public status quo at that level.

But the splintering of media platforms has meant that media consumers can choose, to a greater or lesser degree, which platforms they want to listen to. This has lead to more and more media consumers choosing to “listen” or pay attention to only those platforms that agree with their particular views of what the status quo should be. That has led to general upheaval, because in a world where many voices can be heard, with many ideas about how things should be, people have stopped listening to any voices that might contradict their own.

Thus, a culture war being played out on the public stage.

I mentioned, once, that I view history as music, in a way. Each chord reflects the voices of thousands, at all levels of society in all forms, and each is utterly necessary to create the music that is culture and structure in society.

Suppression of voices will mean instability.

Well. I don’t know that I’ve made any sense in this bit of exploratory writing. It’s tough to boil some of these thoughts down. But what I’m generally thinking, given the work I have done and will continue to do in exploring how underserved populations have found their voices and expressed them, using media platforms to build community and effect change, is that real social and political change can only come when the voices of the underserved are made manifest–and one listens to the stories they can tell.

Days 2 and 3 in Manchester: Archives, a Walking Tour, and Tapas for Dinner

My primary purpose for this trip, of course, was to gather materials for my ongoing research project, which focuses in general on the community-building function of media. In particular on this trip, I had intended to investigate the Manchester Guardian-turned-national newspaper, something that I still think a good idea.

But on my first day here, visiting the People’s History Museum, I stumbled across a working-class publication that was printed during four critical years in British history, and the archive maintained at PHM. Accordingly, I have spent the last two days acquainting myself with that period’s history, the struggles of the working-class, and the British press during that period.

I also digitized a significant chunk of the newspapers’ archive with which to continue my work.

So Day 2 in Manchester found me in St. Peter’s Square, looking for the statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, at which I was to meet a walking tour group that promised a look at Manchester’s political roots and history.

Pankhurst, a pioneering suffragette, is said to have founded the militancy of the suffrage movement right there in Manchester. Her statue features the petite woman standing on a kitchen chair, arms outstretched as if to rally a crowd, and the half-circle of stone at her back reads, “Rise Up Women!”

(I’ve been unable to shake a tune from Mary Poppins from head, ever since. “We’re clearly soldiers in petticoats, and dauntless crusaders for women’s votes; though we adore men individually, we agree that as a group they’re rather stupid; …. Political equality and equal rights with men! Take heart, for Mrs. Pankhurst has been clapped in irons again!”)

The statue was a good place to start the tour, and the guide, Ed Glinert, was clearly knowledgeable about the political events in Manchester and the Peterloo Massacre, in particular. After a stop at town hall to see Pankhurst’s portrait in collage, and a look at the Peterloo memorial in a kind of walkway between it and the adjoining building, he headed us off to the site of the Peterloo Massacre itself. Manchester Central now rests on the site of the field that in August of 1819 saw peaceful protesters (agitating for universal suffrage) mercilessly struck down by an army of thugs hired for the purpose.

Glinert brought us to the site, discussed its history, showed us the place where the stage (built of two wooden carts spliced together) had been, and then walked us through the Radisson Blu, which now stands on that corner and retains memorials to the site’s history as a gathering place for protest. The Free Trade Hall stood there before it was torn down to make way for the hotel.

We walked down the steps where Christabel Pankhurst (daughter of Emmeline) and Annie Kenney were kicked out of a liberal rally there in 1905 after shouting questions about whether the party would grant suffrage to women. The tour continued through town to St. Ann’s Square, site of the first public vote in Manchester in 1832, and by sites of Friedrich Engels’ offices, the Working Man’s Church, and Crown Court (where the last judicial decision to execute a criminal in Britain was handed down in 1864). We finished at the People’s History Museum, of course, and I spent more time with the exhibits there.

(All told, I’ve been at the PHM three days this week in Manchester, and plan to go again on Saturday to see the Peterloo exhibit that opens then. Truly a remarkable find; thanks to my friend Edwina Higgins for recommending I start there!)

Day 3 in Manchester put me back in the archives at PHM to complete the collection of data, and I had a good chat with the archivists about the press and Peterloo. While Peterloo isn’t my focus this round, it is relevant to the press struggles that followed it, and to the founding of the Manchester Guardian. To be here this week, when two different exhibitions are opening about Peterloo, feels serendipitous.

I finished Day 3 with tapas for dinner at Tapeo & Wine with friend Eddie. I love tapas, and it’s tough to find in my home state, so I expected to enjoy the meal. I wasn’t disappointed at all.

Fresh assorted breads, including olive bread, a Manchego cheese board, roasted eggplant with feta, meat cannoli in bechamel, Spanish omelet with potato, olives, and a multi-textured chocolate desert with Irish Cream foam rounded out the meal. I’d forgotten how lovely it is to simply relax, and take my time eating, chatting, and enjoying the food. The Spanish music playing in the background gave way to a live guitarist somewhere during the course of the three hours we spent there, and the laid-back but friendly ambience made the experience a joy. I’d head here again in a heart beat.

Day 4 in Manchester is a writing day, so there won’t be much to share. But I’m heading out with Eddie again on day five to tour some other memorable spots in Manchester, and looking forward to it.

Day 1 in Manchester: The People’s History Museum, the Poor Man’s Guardian, and the John Rylands Library

I’m in Manchester to continue my research into how varied media can be used to facilitate and build community. My original thought, to work with The Guardian, which was founded in Manchester in 1821, still seems like a viable avenue for study.

But today, at the suggestion of a friend, I visited the People’s History Museum, and found a story that needs telling.

The People’s History Museum focuses on the history of protest, the growth of socialism, and the movements toward equal rights that have deep roots and history here in Manchester. The exhibits feature banners and other protest materials, an overview of protest movements in Manchester within national and global contexts, and a special focus on the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, an event during which peaceful protest was broken up in bloody fashion.

The 200th anniversary of Peterloo is this year, and numerous sites around Manchester are preparing exhibits surrounding the events. As I’m here to look at media history here, I’m excited that I’ve apparently–and accidentally–chosen an excellent time to come to Manchester.

As I went through the Museum, one thing stood out to me–a coffin stuffed with copies of a workers’ newspaper called the Poor Man’s Guardian. My interest piqued, I took myself down to the front information desk to discover the museum has a complete archive of the publication, which ran from 1831-1836 and directly engaged with protest against the law that restricted press content–passed in response to the Peterloo Massacre.

I spent hours digging through that archive, before fatigue sent in and I left for the day. This is the story I’ve found that needs telling to a broader audience, and I’m already crafting the first draft. I’m really excited.

Next, I stopped at the nearby John Rylands library to see its printing press, Gutenberg publications, and the oldest known shred of the New Testament (in Greek on papyrus). It’s well worth the trip for the bibliophile, and I found some great examples of type for use in my visual principles of mass media course.

It was a busy day, but I look forward to heading back this week to continue gathering my research data.

Tomorrow, though, I’m taking a bit of a break and heading to Liverpool. It’s time to see about the Beatles experience.

Day 2 in London: The Tower, Westminster Pier, and the Thames

As I planned this trip, I tried to focus on things I had never done before. As a student in England in 1992, I managed to cover a lot of ground, and that did include large swaths of London itself.

That said, I decided to revisit a favorite spot: the Tower of London.

I’ve always been drawn to the Tower. I have distant British royal ancestry, if the records are accurate; my last direct ancestor on the throne was Edward I, Longshanks, Hammer of the Scots. I didn’t know about this family history when I was last here, but this time around, I did. When I saw that one of the self-guided audio tours for the Tower focused on the life of Edward and his father, Henry III, I opted to do that, first.

The tour took me into a section of the complex that I don’t remember climbing before, up along the battlements on the side of grounds facing the Thames. Henry built his medieval palace construction there, away from the central White Tower. I walked up a flight of stairs along the wall and into the main receiving hall for the king, which was flanked by a tower at a corner and featured an enormous fireplace. Broad wooden beams kept the high ceilings safe under the heavy guns that would have rested on top of the roof.

The room itself lacked the luxury it would have had in the thirteenth century; its wooden floors and clean brick-and-stone walls would have been the same, but they would have been covered with carpets and tapestries against the chill. The large room adjoining the private hall, Edward I’s bedroom with small adjoining chapel, remains furnished as it might have been in his time.

It’s an odd feeling, walking in the footsteps of ancestors who lived hundreds of years ago.

I enjoyed the tour, which also included re-enactors in Edward’s chambers talking to school groups about the castle’s construction. In fact, there were numerous school groups present throughout the grounds, with older students discussing the bloody history of parts of the tower and younger students enjoying the Crown Jewels, and some of the specially tailored children’s activities (including knight’s training). I’m looking forward to bringing my own children here some day.

I revisited the execution site of Ann Boleyn and the prison of Beauchamp Tower; I also revisited the study kept by Sir Walter Raleigh when he and his family were confined to the Tower under Queen Elizabeth I. I also enjoyed the peek at the ravens of the Tower, and the walk along the Thames after my visit that culminated in amazing fish and chips from Josef’s stand.

I debated my next move from there, but as I was fairly tired from walking all those battlements (and up and down miles of twisty medieval staircases–I’d forgotten the sheer number of steps that go along with exploring castles and castle-like structures), so I decided to take advantage of the pass I had to take a Thames River cruise.

This meant first taking the Tube down to Westminster Pier to collect the ticket associated with my London Explorer Pass, which was no trouble. Once at Westminster Pier, I took note of the protesters on the square near the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, and promptly turned down toward the water, instead. I collected my ticket, then headed down to the water to board the City Cruises boat.

The river cruise was definitely a first for me, and it afforded me the opportunity to take pictures from the water, which gave me some fantastic views, including a spectacular shot of the Tower featuring the Traitor’s Gate from the water. The boat took me back up the Thames to Tower Pier (I could have continued to Greenwich, but felt immeasurably tired at this point). I enjoyed the live commentary and the company of other Americans who sat with me by the front of the boat.

It was a good day.

Day 1 In London: Baker Street, Piccadilly Circus, and Betrayal

While it’s actually my second day in London, I lost a day to jet lag and poor decision-making, so today was the first day I spent out and about.

I knew going into the day that I had an afternoon commitment, so I focused on spending the morning doing one thing I’ve wanted to do for some time: I visited 221B Baker Street, the Sherlock Holmes Museum. I have been a fan of the mystery stories for a very long time, and the Holmes stories stand out as an exemplar of the best there are. With the recent resurgence in Holmes’ popularity, due in large part to the Robert Downey Jr. films and BBC’s Sherlock, I have been joined by many others. The original stories have also made their way into the public domain at this point, so people who are interested in recreating, retelling, or otherwise reusing the Holmes premise are welcome to do so, within reason.

That said, the Baker Street museum, as a living representation of a fictional space, was a fun stop for the true Holmes fan. Set up in rooms that actually were used as a lodging house during the period Holmes purported to live there (1881-1904), the museum features Holmes’ study, furnished with period furniture as well as his violin, chemistry set, and other notable artifacts from the books. His bedroom adjoins the study, and up a flight of stairs, visitors find John Watson’s room, furnished with writing desk and other necessities, and Mrs. Hudson’s room, which features glass cases filled with artifacts from the books.

Up another flight, rooms feature truly creepy mannequins made to look like characters from the books. I took a selfie with Moriarty, because I’m like that.

For a Holmes fan, it was a good stop. I also discovered that Baker Street Underground Station, recently refurbished, is a good place to regroup and seek a next stop. Literally.

I “hopped on” a tour bus to get out of a sudden drizzle, and it took me to the London Eye. After a quick off and back on again for pictures, I took the hop-on bus up through the old City of London to Tower Hill, catching some amazing shots from the upper deck when the sun came out. While I was familiar with the London history our tour guide, Christopher, imparted–quite well, and engagingly–I felt a bit like I was coming home when I saw the dragon that guards the entrance to the City. And I did see the new Millenium Bridge. And crossed the Thames three times–on the bridge to Waterloo, London Bridge, and Tower Bridge.

Assured by Christopher that no, I would not make it to Picadilly Circus by 1:30 on the tour bus, I hopped off at Tower Hill and took the Tube back to Picadilly for lunch, and to walk around the corner from there to the Harold Pinter Theater for the 2:30 production of Betrayal featuring Tom Hiddleston.

Hiddleston, who is better known to American audiences as Loki from the Marvel movies, remains a stalwart of the London stage, and in the 90 minute performance, I could see why. He’s incredibly expressive, and the play, with its cast of three, helped him demonstrate that. At one point, from my seat in the front row (dress circle), I could see tears reflecting in his eyes. The show was brilliant, and his fellow cast members, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox, do their roles justice. I was spellbound. And sort of patting myself on the back for blowing my theater budget on one ticket, because at least it was this show.

The review to which I linked above sums up the experience nicely, and includes photographs, which of course are a no-go in the theater.

On to adventures for Day 2.