Monday, 12 September 2011

You Can Go Back

Ten years ago, I stepped off a plane in Gatwick Airport for what was to be an incredible experience. I was 18-years-old, wide eyed and ready for life in a castle. Oh, yes, I was headed for a year abroad in a castle. Do you remember what else happened the fall of 2001? Probably not, if you're over 30 and didn't have a child under 16 at the time - the first Harry Potter film opened! I flew 3,000 miles on a fluke that turned out to be the best decision of my life. Lets face it, very few of the decisions anyone makes at 18-years-old can ever be classed as the "best of their life, " but this one was.

Life at the Queen's University International Study Centre was amazing. It introduced me to some fantastic people, both classmates and instructors, it afforded me the opportunity to travel like very few people ever can (I went to France for a history class - it was mandatory) and it let me live my Harry Potter fantasy. The ISC, now called the Bader International Study Centre, really is located in a castle and is nestled in the bucolic landscape of beautiful East Sussex. Herstmonceux Castle was first noted in the Domesday Book in 1086 as a mansion and was crenelated in 1441 making it a castle, though not one that ever saw any defensive action.

In 1777, the owners, who had inherited the castle, thought to themselves, you know, we're not really digging the idea of restoring this old castle. What could we do instead? Well, their architect, Samuel Wyatt had a cracking idea. Why not dismantle the castle and use the bricks to build a massive, modern mansion down the road? Then you can have both a toasty, new, flashy house and a romantic ruin.

Well, this just seemed like a brilliant idea so that's exactly what they did. They left the exterior walls standing, while demolishing the majority of the interior. Nothing says romance like demolishing a perfectly good and historically important castle.

Fortunately for me and many others, in 1913 restoration began on the castle, which made it, once again a habitable building. 1992 is really the crucial year for the BISC, however, as it was the year that Alfred Bader happened to see a castle for sale. He turned to his lovely wife, Isabel, and asked her, What do you think of buying a castle? Her immediate response was to tell him, That's far too many rooms to hoover. And thus, with one woman's desire to avoid hoovering, a fantastic opportunity for me and many others was born. Alfred bought the castle anyway and gave it to his alma mater, Queen's University of Kingston, Ontario, Canada as an international study centre.

Last weekend we went back to the castle, to the moment I knew I never wanted to stop traveling, to the year I met my husband. Oh, and we brought the in-laws. My family came in hoards when I was there, including both my grannies, but my fella's parents had never seen where we met. We had the most wonderful weather to wander through the gardens and getting wonderful weather in this part of the world is no small stroke of luck. It was odd having to pay for a tour of the building and grounds where we used to live, but worth it to be able to see it again, a decade later.

Unlike visiting my old elementary school, which seemed so much smaller, nothing seemed very different at the castle. It was and always will be one of the homes I've made for myself in this world. One of the little spaces that has opened itself to me, shared its secrets with me and, in turn, heard mine.

I'm reading The Distant Hours by Kate Morton, right now, and in it she describes the walls of an old English mansion as "ancient walls that sing the distant hours." No matter the renovations and modernizations that Herstmonceux Castle has suffered, the walls that have stood for over half a century still whisper and sing to me. They whisper of the ghosts, the Grey Lady and the Headless Drummer, they sing of the children who have run through the halls and the great arc of history they've seen, and they whisper to me of my own not so distant or dramatic past.

So, it turns out: you can go back and you can bring your in-laws with you.

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