This morning we checked out of the Holiday Inn Express that has been our home for the past three nights. It is unusual for tour members to stay in a hotel, but this must have been part of God's plan because it allowed us time to get our bearings with organizing our large group plus manage instruments and late-breaking changes.
With buses loaded and ready to roll, we thanked St. Anthony, patron of lost objects, for many "finds" overnight. Between last night and this morning, tour members recovered a green pocket Bible, a belt, a camera case, a pink iPod, a silver watch, and a sweatshirt. Travel hint from Cameron, who claimed two of the lost items: If you've lost something, trust your intuition and check behind the drawn drapes in the room where you've been staying! Still missing are a clutch and a video memory card. All together now... "St. Anthony, St. Anthony, please come around. Something's gone missing and it must be found!"
Today's sightseeing would take us to Windsor Great Park, the town of Windsor, and Windsor Castle. As we neared Windsor, we passed the raceway where the Royal Ascot race was held just last week. This is a week-long thoroughbred racing event that has members of England's royal family in attendance. Too bad we missed seeing the British women in their amazing hats! The grounds of Windsor Great Park were studded with black oak trees of a normal height yet with surprisingly thick trunks, a sign of mature age in a tree. We wondered how many rings would be in a cross-section of such a tree.
Having arrived in Windsor, each person was given £8 (pounds sterling, where one pound = $1.73) for lunch "on your own." Essentially, we had free time for a few hours with more options than we had time for. Most of the youth enjoyed browsing the shops in the immaculate and quaint town of Windsor which sits right on the Thames River. Dozens of graceful white swans have made the river their home. Purchases made in town included belated Father's Day gifts, sweaters, T-shirts, fudge, maps, and trinkets. This breezy summer day was our warmest day yet on tour, and shorts and sleeveless shirts finally and happily surfaced.
Several chaperones and youth chose to go on a tour of Windsor Castle. As we purchased our group tickets, we befriended a family of three (mom, dad, and son) visiting from Boston and invited them to join us in the group purchase. During the process, the 17-year-old son (who plays piano) made an instant connection with the youth members of our group and stayed with them for most of the tour. It's a wonderful feeling to bond with a stranger through shared kindness, and we have seen this in some form every day of tour.
Windsor Castle is as impressive as the press would suggest when they cover newsworthy events involving the royal family. Dating to 1080, it is the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world. It has been a place of residence for the royal family for over 900 years. The castle sits high on a hill on the edge of the town of Windsor. The compound is comprised of immense manicured grounds, lavish state rooms, an art gallery, a doll house (an amazing miniature from 1923), and a beautiful chapel. The art gallery showcases significant art pieces collected by Prince Phillip, the husband of current Queen Elizabeth II. On display are drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, self-portraits by Rembrandt, and paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The state rooms are used today when formal state dinners are given, using china sets that are hundreds of years old. Saint George's Chapel within the castle walls contains the remains of several kings. An organ concert was being held while we visited. Lastly, we saw the Changing of the Royal Guard when an officer on a new shift marches with escorts to replace another guard who is no doubt fatigued after hours of standing straight as an arrow. The guards wear the classic red uniforms with distinctly tall, black, furry hats. Of course we took pictures with the guard on duty, close enough to see his eyes take in everything going on around him while his body was solid as a statue.
Tonight's concert was held at the Holy Saviour Church in the town of Hitchin. We arrived in time for both a rehearsal and a buffet dinner served by the women of the church. Together, the communities of Hitchin and Stevenage went out of their way to make us feel welcome. Dinner was a feast of chicken, ham, couscous, salads, breads, and homemade desserts. Church members served up the dishes and warmly greeted everyone in our party. The "flower ladies" of the church had made striking flower arrangements using red, white, and blue flowers, decorating them with both USA and British flags. USA and British flags were also posted on the church columns as a sign of friendship between our countries.
Holy Saviour Church has wonderful acoustics for a performance. The church was built during 1864-65 by a wealthy reverund who wanted to glorify God and serve the growing community with a home for worship at a time when the coming of the railroad was promoting growth. The building is Neo-Gothic in style, made of red bricks assembled in a pattern that is a trade mark of the architect William Butterfield. Butterfield's work also exists at a church in Oxford, and in the coming days we will see if the red brick pattern exists there as well. Holy Saviour Church contains brilliant stained glass windows added through time depicting scenes from both the Old Testament and the New Testament.
As the start to the performance, a warm welcome was extended by the church vicar and the church organist. The choir and orchestra gave a moving performance of the Haydn mass with soloists Madeline Waters, Katherine Williams, Dan Krotz, and Dylan Howe. The "Yorkshire Ballad" with its flowing melody was played as a tribute to England and its beauty. Several anthems were performed, including "If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments" sung a capella by the choir and directed by Cameron. At the end of the concert, Trevor Hughes, the church organist, expressed his appreciation for this performance given with spirit and understanding.
The Lord is always at work in bringing us together. After the concert, each host family left the church with their assigned youth members or adults pulling luggage behind them to spend the next two nights together. Special recognition goes to Carol and Harold Stokes who are wonderful hosts to the blogger! May God bless every host pairing with a shared experience to remember fondly.
We ask that you pray for our dear Sue Constantinides, who is a chaperone fighting an illness on tour. Among other things, Sue is our primary photographer on the trip. Blog postings of photos start with Sue capturing those Kodak moments for all you readers. Many thanks to Bonnie Emery for taking wonderful photos in Sue's absence!
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