Austen's England & The Open Palace Programme

“Well folks, we’re a bit delayed because the airplane navigation lights aren’t working, but we’ll be fine.” I’d been lost in the book on my lap for the last 45 minutes when the captain’s announcement pulled me back to reality. I looked out the window at the fog and pouring rain. If it had been any other airline, I might have panicked, but knowing the skill of Alaskan pilots, I settled back into Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.”

I’d been hooked from the first line and felt I could relate to the tom-boyish, book-loving  Catherine Morland with the tendency to let her romanticizing get the better of her. So far she had arrived in Bath with only her books for company and a matronly family friend to introduce her to society. In a matter of days I’d be stepping off the train in Bath myself where I had instructions to meet Mrs. Jean MacIntyre for introductions to the 20 other girls who I’d be traveling with for the three-week Open Palace Programme. I was hoping Miss Morland’s story might provide some insight to making new girlfriends out of new acquaintances.

A few planes and several hours later, somewhere amidst Catherine and her new best friend, Isabella Thorpe, having tea at the Pump Room and dancing at the Assembly Rooms, I touched down in London. Jetlagged, but excited, I handed the immigration officer my customs form, which he scrutinized, before saying, “Tell me more about this program.” I explained that the Open Palace Programme is an academic tour which would take our group to several heritage institutions, museums, and castles starting in Bath and ending in London with a few more cities in between. At each location conservationists and preservationists would provide lectures, hands-on activities, and behind the scenes tours to teach us about all aspects of the museum profession. The officer looked back down at the paper I’d handed him.

“Ohhhh, I thought you’d written Activist, not Archivist!”

With that he stamped my passport, thanked me for my service towards preserving history, and let me into the country.

London Tower Bridge
I’m back in England!

After a couple days in London sleeping off the jetlag and visiting some literary inspired locations I’d missed two summers ago, the next hurdle was to locate two of the girls in my program who I’d corresponded with ahead of time. We’d agreed to take the train from London’s Paddington Station to Bath together. I’d suggested we meet at the Paddington Bear statue. Arriving at the station, I looked back at my iphone messages:

“I’ll be the girl with the pink zebra print suitcase.”
one had messaged. I wanted to judge her so much, but refrained because I’d messaged back,
“I’ve got a Gryffindor crest on mine.”

Soon the other two arrived. We piled ourselves and our bizarre set of luggage into a train car, and chatted the whole way to Bath like old friends!

Aleesha & Luggage
Our first test of friendship was playing Tetris with our luggage on the train- and then trying to hide it behind Aleesha.

Our home for the next week while in Bath was a strangely storied townhouse. The welcome-binder in the common room stated that it had once been a gay bar. The penis confetti in the common room might have suggested this, but I’m guessing the previous occupants had celebrated a hen party. The basement level contained a domed train-tunnel shaped hangout space with a game system and beanbag chairs that ran under the street. I could definitely imagine this space as a nightclub. It was no Northanger Abbey, but this house certainly had just as many oddities. It was here that we met the rest of our tour group.

Our first afternoon in Bath was spent getting to know each other in the most British way possible- over tea and cakes, of course. The 21 of us girls, plus our two mentors, and Mrs. MacIntyre mingled, sharing our background, and laughing at one another’s accents. There were four from America, one from Canada (though it’s possible she just didn’t want to admit she was American), and all the rest came from either New Zealand or Australia. Over the next three weeks, besides learning all about the museum profession and spending the majority of my free time following the footsteps of Jane Austen, I learned from my fellow travelers, things like, “I forgot my jumper!” means “I really should have worn a sweater!” and that Canadians really do say “a boot” instead of “about,” and most importantly of all, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” It’s true, but I still should have bought a “brolly” (umbrella) two weeks sooner than I did!

Austen in Plants
“Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?” Bath’s tribute to Jane Austen for the country-wide 200th anniversary celebration after Austen’s death

Keep following this blog to find out what other lessons I learned over the last month, the literary secrets of almost every location along the Open Palace Programme itinerary, where you can follow in the footsteps of Jane Austen, and most of all, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero[ine] of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else…” Oh wait…wrong author, but don’t worry, we’ll get to Dickens too!

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If you could follow in the footsteps of your favorite author, who would it be and where would it take you?

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