by Laura Edmunds

Laura Edmunds is a graduate student of English and comparative literature on the Teaneck-Hackensack Campus. While taking the courses “This Rough Magic” and “I’ll Mark the Play” at FDU’s Wroxton College, Wroxton near Banbury, England, she kept a journal of her experiences. The following piece consists of excerpts from that journal and memories of her Wroxton experience.

Wroxton AbbeyA Wroxton Journal

FDU’s Wroxton College provides an excellent springboard for students interested in exploring a new country. The most important things you can pack on any trip are your common sense and an open mind. If you are thinking about studying abroad, prepare yourself to embrace, rather than reject, the cultural differences you experience while visiting another country. No, you cannot spend American dollars anywhere in England, and the New Yorker way of getting loud and profane to get what you want just does not work in England, so don’t try it. If you accept what you learn while abroad, you will have the experience of a lifetime and will return to the United States a changed person.

Immediate Impressions

My experience at Wroxton College was very much influenced by my first impressions of the place. As I stepped into a cab in Banbury, I wondered what the Abbey would be like … who my classmates would be … I worried about being a Shakespeare illiterate among Shakespeare worshippers. As all this knocked around in my head, the driver broke into my musings with an offer to show me around Banbury.

Wroxton College Seal

He turned off the meter and drove me past the Banbury Cross, the discos and the banks, and showed me where to find great food. As we approached Wroxton College, he asked if I would like to know where the local pubs were located. I quickly learned the location of the White Horse and the North Arms pubs. As we approached the Abbey itself I slipped back into my private musings. I thought, “Wow, this place is my home.”

The Abbey looks like something out of television’s “Masterpiece Theatre,” and if you have ever fantasized about approaching your home from a long curvy drive, this is your place. My musings were interrupted again as the driver stopped the car at the front door. He was up the stairs with my luggage before I got myself out of the car. This was a special treat for me after lugging my backpack around London for three days.

After finding my room and relieving myself of my bags, I headed for lunch. Here [in the college’s dining room in the Abbey’s former Carriage House], I was treated to a better lunch than I would ever eat at home. I filled up on fresh salad, fruit, cold meat and pasta. College students love to complain about dining-hall food, but there isn’t much to complain about at Wroxton. The catering manager, Meryl, will take good care of you. She even asks you to fill out a survey of what kind of food you like … and actually listens to your requests! Vegetarians need not worry, there are veggie alternatives at every meal, and if you have a sweet tooth you will be very happy with the desserts.

Plan on gaining a few pounds at Wroxton; they feed you five times a day! This includes two breaks a day for tea, a real British tradition that you may want to continue when you return home. No matter how intense your class lectures or discussions become you can count on a welcome break at 11:15 a.m. and 4:15 p.m. If you are not into tea, coffee is served, as well as some very sweet cakes and pastries.

Changing of the Guard

After lunch, I went back to the Abbey to have a good look at where I would be living for the next few weeks. The Great Hall is the kind of place you would expect to see loads of those annoying little “please do not touch” cards. Having been in England several times before, I was well acquainted with those little cards and was actually surprised not to see them. The Great Hall is exactly what you would expect to see in any ancient English manor house, complete with a handsomely carved fireplace, a Minstrel’s Gallery and several suits of armor; but here you don’t have to walk between velvet ropes. I satisfied my childish urge to touch everything and sit in every chair in the room, and then moved on to the library, which occupies the entire ground floor of the north wing and houses an extensive collection of books, newspapers and periodicals.

“The Great Hall is exactly what you would expect to see in any ancient English manor house, complete with a handsomely carved fireplace, a Minstrel’s Gallery and several suits of armor; but here you don’t have to walk between velvet ropes.”
— Laura Edmunds

There are doors and staircases all over the Abbey, and it takes several days to orient yourself. Tucked neatly into the back of the building is the Chapel, an impressive room with a huge window above the altar. When Dr. [Nicholas] Baldwin [director of Wroxton College] gives the guided tour of the Abbey, he will tell you that this window is “painted” glass, not stained glass, and is extremely valuable. He’ll tell you a few other things too; but I think the story about the window is true.

If you have never had the pleasure of experiencing British humor, or “humour” as they like to spell it in England, Dr. Baldwin will be happy to initiate you. The two most important things you will learn at Wroxton are the concept of BST, Baldwin Standard Time, and the immeasurable importance of the “rack.” Baldwin Standard Time simply means that everything at Wroxton occurs precisely at the time it is scheduled. You will be entertained by funny stories of poor students who overslept and had to run down the drive in their pajamas to catch the bus to Stonehenge; but be warned that these stories are true! The bus waits for no one, and you will be ruthlessly ostracized for any late appearances.

The “rack” is where you keep your fire card, which lets everyone know whether you are in or out of the building. Remembering to turn your fire card is a topic drilled into your brain from the moment you arrive. Even if you step out onto the front steps for a cigarette, remember to turn your fire card! This may seem a silly thing to go on about, but I promise you that your fire card will end up on page one of your Wroxton scrapbook.

Once you have learned about BST and the rack, you are free to go back to your room and try to sleep off the jet lag. I unpacked my bag and when I opened what I thought was the closet door, I laughed out loud when I realized it was my own private bathroom. Now, if you live in a dorm or have to share a bathroom at home with a roommate or sibling, you know very well that the luxury of a private bathroom cannot be overestimated. I fell asleep that first night thinking “this place is better than home … I don’t have to clean, I don’t have to cook, and I don’t even have to make my own coffee in the morning.”

My generally awesome first impression of Wroxton Abbey was tied up for good the following morning, when I explored the basement and discovered the computer room and free Internet use. I quickly e-mailed friends in Africa, Asia, Canada and Australia, letting them know how great I felt to be at a place like Wroxton and not in the local youth hostel or campground!

The Inevitable

Eventually the inevitable has to happen, even at Wroxton. You have to go to class. All my trepidation about my Shakespeare inadequacy was assuaged by noon on the first day of classes. Dr. Pamela Mason, the resident Shakespearean expert and professor, who has an impressive stack of academic credentials, is a great teacher. She is one of the blessed few passionate instructors in this world, and her passion is contagious. The focus in her classes is on Shakespeare in performance, and all discussions and papers deal with the performances you will see while at Wroxton. So, even if you don’t know the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet” by heart, you need not worry because prior knowledge is not necessary. I truly felt that these courses were accessible to just about every student with an interest in drama or Shakespeare.

Going to the theatre is a big part of the study of Shakespeare at Wroxton, but your theatre experiences will be rounded out with careful reading of the texts, class discussions, movies, guest speakers and, best of all, chats with Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) actors. These “chat sessions” are great and allow students a practical look inside the art of performing Shakespeare as well as the philosophy of the particular actor you are talking to.

As a Wroxton Shakespeare student, you also will have access to the library at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon. This is a fascinating place because it has all the archives of every performance done by the Royal Shakespeare Company. These archives include the prompt books and notes from directors and stage managers as well as the production photos. You can get lost in the library gazing at photos of RSC actors like Ralph Fiennes, Patrick Stewart, Kenneth Brannagh, Glenda Jackson, Ben Kingsley, Judi Dench and I could go on and on. What I found most fascinating about the library, though, is that we were able to look at some really ancient books. Lying on the table where I was studying scenes from “Othello” was a 400-year-old copy of Otello, the source story for the play (strategically placed by the assistant librarian to spark my interest). Of course, I couldn’t read a word. It was written in Italian, and I was afraid to get too close to it, scared to death that I would breathe on it wrongly and cause it to spontaneously combust or something like that. It probably needed one of those “please do not touch” cards next to it. I felt extremely fortunate to be able to look at books as valuable as Otello, and felt confident that I would not have an opportunity like that again.

London Bridge

On the Town

Well, after days of lecture, study and the pursuit of knowledge, even serious students are definitely ready for a drink. As I wrote before, the Wroxton pubs are the White Horse and the North Arms. Both are within easy walking distance and are friendly places, as long as you behave yourself. If you are nice to the owner of the White Horse, he will make you some shepherd’s pie (a real English pub meal), and the locals may let you sit in on a game of cribbage on Tuesday nights. If you are in for something a little more raucous, you can hire a cab and go into the town of Banbury, where the discos are jumping on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. “Disco” has nothing to do with Saturday Night Fever or K.C. and the Sunshine Band, it is what the English call a “club.” This is where the younger generation spends the weekends, and you will experience all the latest dance music and trendy fashion at a disco. Hint: don’t wear your sneakers (trainers, as they call them in England); you will not be allowed in because there is a dress code!

When you are not out in the clubs or discos on the weekends, you will spend a great deal of time seeing the sights of England. The college organizes trips every weekend to some of the great attractions in England. Some of the trips during my time at Wroxton were to Stonehenge, Warwick Castle, London, Brighton, Bath and Oxford. If you haven’t been to England before, you will not want to miss these trips. If you are the adventurous type and you want to go further afield, you can get a train from Banbury to just about anywhere in England. It is also very easy to organize trips to France, Amsterdam and Ireland. Make sure you keep up with your schoolwork during the week so you don’t have to miss out on any of the sightseeing. You will want to be able to say, “been there, done that,” to your friends and family when you get home.

The “been there, done that” philosophy is something that I have really wrapped my arms around for the past two years. I have done everything extreme – scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef, safari in Africa, camel riding in the Sahara desert, bullfighting in Spain (well, I watched) and so on. England is still my “favourite” place. My incurable wanderlust started there on a two-week senior class trip 10 years ago. Maybe your wanderlust will start there too.

FDU’s Wroxton program is unique and you are selling yourself short if you miss it. The study abroad offices at the Teaneck-Hackensack and Florham-Madison campuses will help you with everything you need to know about studying at Wroxton. Maybe I will see you there, because I am going back the first chance I get!

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