As a recent vacation to the British Isles wound down, it was less the well-known tourist attractions and more the search for a contemporary relevance between the Old World and the New World that mattered most.
The trip began with a quick reminder of just how many facts had fled my memory immediately after my last World History test way back when.
But during the tour I did pick up this much about the period from, say, 1066, when William the Conqueror and the Normans seized control of Britain, and 1776, when many Americans’ interest in British history started to wane: Nearly every historical figure was beheaded.
That could be an oversimplification, but it gets us to our next stop — Scotland — and if you thought the beheadings were distasteful, Scotland has something nearly as distasteful and it’s called haggis, which is the national dish of Scotland and loosely defined as a type of pudding featuring sheep’s intestines.
Speaking of things that are hard to swallow, our next stop was Loch Ness, purported home to the Loch Ness Monster, which is basically Scotland’s version of Bigfoot in the sense that both are mysterious, perhaps prehistoric creatures with a remarkable ability to generate T-shirt sales.
Loch Ness, thankfully, was nothing like I expected. I had imagined our guide would be the most stereotypical Scotsman, a flesh-and-blood version of Groundskeeper Willie from “The Simpsons,” only less subtle. He’d be wearing a kilt and tam-o’-shanter and would yell at us, “Aye lads and lassies, let’s go find Nessie!”
Instead we were educated by a young, professionally dressed member of The Loch Ness Project, a serious-minded group that has studied Loch Ness — the largest body of fresh water in the British Isles — and put together a museum featuring a detailed analysis of the numerous sightings, without judgment, of the Loch Ness Monster over several decades.
Next stop was Northern Ireland, a most fascinating destination. Belfast, which tour guides readily acknowledged, was the equivalent of Beirut when it came to chronic violence as centuries-old British-Irish tensions boiled over a few decades back before peace arrived some 20 years ago.
Belfast Titanic is a three-year-old interactive exhibition dedicated to the role of shipbuilding in Belfast’s emergence and is located just steps from the site where the ill-fated Titanic was constructed. Though inhabited for centuries, Belfast wasn’t granted city status until 1888, making it a mere infant in European terms, and it must have been conflicted about its role in the Titanic sinking the way Dallas was conflicted about its in the Kennedy Assassination — recognizing a need to acknowledge it without allowing it to define the city.
Next stop was the Republic of Ireland, formed fewer than 70 years ago as the only part of the British Isles that doesn’t belong to the United Kingdom, and therefore uses the euro, not the pound, as its primary currency, which is spent on a lot of Guinness in a lot of pubs.
Then came Wales. And what can we say about Wales? Well, not much actually because Wales’ chief export seems to be words that outsiders cannot pronounce, such as Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch, which is the actual spelling of the name of our first stop there.
Finally, a vacation that began with visits to historical places, such as the Tower of London, Hadrian’s Wall and Stonehenge, ended with visits to more contemporary places, including Penny Lane, Strawberry Field and Eleanor Rigby’s gravesite.
The home of The Beatles is Liverpool, and a trip to the Cavern Club, where the Fab Four played nearly 300 times, provides a living, breathing taste of what makes it historically significant, something that can’t be done with castles and battlefields.
As a band in the subterranean main room belted out “A Hard Day’s Night,” the contemporary relevance of the Old World to the New World became clear: The Beatles’ trip from England to America just might have been the most significant since the pilgrims’ voyage on the Mayflower from Plymouth, England, to the New World nearly 350 years earlier.
And one would not have happened if not for the other.