Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Castles and manuscripts and semi-automatic weapons, oh my!

I made it to Windsor today to look at an eight-line poem written in the fifteenth century in a blank space in an earlier manuscript. And though a small bit of text, it was a fruitful trip in many ways. Yay for successful fact-finding missions, however marginal they may at first glance seem. But my, what a process to get there! For eight lines!

To get where I was going at Windsor Castle, I didn't have to go through the usual tourist entrance, but instead was told to enter through the Henry VIII gate and ask the policeman there to direct me to the pass office. Easier said than done. I will spare you the detailed story about how just getting to Windsor was an adventure because I stupidly took the wrong Tube line and so missed the 08:23 train from Waterloo and got to Windsor a half hour later than intended (it involved the Northern Line -- I now loathe the Northern Line, for it is wicked), and skip to arriving at the Henry VIII gate to be faced with a kevlar-armored police commando holding a semi-automatic weapon across his chest. It's bad enough to enter through the Henry VIII gate -- will I be divorced? beheaded? or will I survive? -- but *you* try explaining to a heavily armed policeman that you're here to look at a medieval manuscript. It's rather intimidating!

Actually, he was very nice, as was his less armed partner, and they both directed me to a yet kindlier policeman inside a vestibule, who seemed to be the Copper with the Answers. It was a bit like a set of nesting dolls -- you had to get past the big imposing one, then the medium sized one, to get to the adorable one at the center. And the ones on guard in the afternoon were equally friendly: when I "surrendered" my pass, one made sure I wouldn't be coming back, and when I said yes, he said, "Well, our loss then!"

And once I was directed to the pass office and came back with my pass and showed my passport for ID (which the man with the gun had trouble with because apparently US ones have the picture in a different end than UK ones -- "trust you lot to be different," he said in a jovial way), everything went smoothly until I was confronted with a chain across the stairs leading to the archives. What with the heavily armed policemen around -- not to mention all the ceremonial swords on all the traditional guards -- and, I'm sure, CCTV covering every nook and cranny, I didn't really like the thought of ducking under it. So I went back to the kindliest of the three bears, er, policemen, the one with the Answers, and asked him, "Yo, dude, what up with the chain?" OK, not in so many words. Kindly police officer that he was, he left his post and walked back with me to figure out what was going on, and undid it for me, telling me it was just to keep the general public out. Awesome -- I'm not the general public! (Do you now have "Tenderness" [Link = YouTube clip] going through your head? Yeah, me too.) Later, when I was exiting that part of the castle, yet another chain was up across another space, but that time, knowing that I was not the mere general public, I very cavalierly undid the chain myself and walked out, as curious tourists wondered who I must be. OK, maybe they didn't care, but I thought I was pretty special.

It's not like I saw anything fabulous that tourists couldn't see from other vantage points, but I was in a part of the castle that's its own little world, separate from the tourists and State Rooms and changing of the guard and all that royal ceremony hoo-ha. In the Horseshoe Cloister, which I passed through to get to the Vicar's Undercroft, it seems there are living quarters, presumably for residential castle staff. I took a picture of the unusually curved building (hence the name "Horseshoe Cloister"), but as you may recall, I can't upload my pictures at the moment. It's a half-circle building in the style now called "Tudor" (only here it was obviously the real thing) -- brick on the bottom, beam and plaster on the top -- and has a continuous covered walk around its length over the entrances to all the residences (hence "cloister"). I know it was residential for two reasons: there were signs that said "Residents Only on Grass"; and as I left I caught a glimpse of the inside of one of them. They reminded me of the "rooms" (that is, apartments) that some Oxbridge dons have "in college." And beyond the Horseshoe Cloister, near the Vicar's residence and on the back side of St. George's Chapel, a whole little village seemed to open up. As I was leaving, a man and woman with a baby carriage were entering, presumably to go home.

In other words, I was in a living modern-medieval castle, bustling with life and activity on a grand scale, and not just because of the mad swarms of tourists. I know the traditional guards have horses somewhere, but here there were cars parked in reserved spaces in the Horseshoe Cloister and in the next court yard. The castle was guarded by modern versions of knights and infantry - some with swords, some with guns. The tourists were the courtiers and visiting statesmen, while the residents and staff and various and sundry went about their daily business, and I and the other "clerks" were busy doing things with manuscripts, and, in this case, microfiche, photocopies, Word texts, and PDFs, too. Meanwhile, the royal household was a presence without actually necessarily being present.

Plus ca change...

Post script: given all the fire power and other security (I had to apply for my pass in advance, presumably so they could look me up on watch lists and also see if I had a record), I was pretty surprised that there was no bag check. Nope, not one bit. In the *archives* I had to leave my bag in a vestibule inside their locked door (entrance by buzzer only), but no where outside of the archives was my bag a problem. After the archives, I even wandered around the tourist parts of the castle for awhile. (No one asked to see my entrance ticket -- there was 12 quid wasted on the discount ticket I bought with my train fare. D'oh!) I went in and around St. George's Chapel with my bag strapped to my back, and wandered around the middle and lower wards with it as well. Very strange.


This old world is a new world said...

What did I tell you????

This is a great account of the difficulty (and pleasure!) of what are really private archives. They're really not intended for the likes of us. I had a similar experience a few weeks ago at the College of Arms: not really set up for the academic researcher.

Glad you got your eight lines worth, though!

Dr. Virago said...

Actually, it was easier than I thought it would be, given your warnings. But because of your warnings, I still got there before the changing of the guard and knew to expect some rigamarole. So thanks!

Anonymous said...

Two things: firstly, coooool! and secondly, the Northern Line does that to everyone, and if you do know which branch you want, simply runs like glue for your convenience instead. No Londoner would disagree with you about its evil. Congratulations: you've gone native...