Tuesday, December 8
Nothing to do today. Nothing!
So, the first thing to be done is to plan what to do.
Actually I have a couple of work related things to deal with before I enjoy my day of freedom. I want to take the opportunity to get all of my costumes dry cleaned, so that they are fresh for the final push. I bag both costumes up and take them down to the front desk early, so as to be sure to get them back this evening.
I also take the opportunity to load some things into the car (Pam has left the Volvo for me to use for the next week), so that I don’t have to pack everything into my cases. It is another beautiful morning and I take some pictures of the sun peeping through the mist over Hershey.
I also do a little more work on the UK leg of my tour, before going down to breakfast in the dining room, where I am greeted like an old friend by one of the waiting staff, who used to work on my event before it moved upstairs to The Castilian Room.
As it is a free day I decide to splurge on breakfast, just for old time’s sake and order Hershey Kisses Waffles, with 2 eggs and bacon, followed by some toast. I am intrigued by the Kisses reference and when they are delivered I see that the iconic chocolate drop shape has been built into the waffle iron.
I linger long over breakfast and contemplate my options for the day ahead: I could stay in the hotel and maybe visit the spa for a bit of a pamper, but the hotel represents work, and I would really like to get away completely today. On my last day off in Pigeon Forge I drove up into the Smoky Mountains and had an amazing time, and I think that’s the sort of thing I’m in the mood for.
Two years ago I was in the same situation at Hershey and decided to visit the Gettysburg Battlefield. On that occasion, and it seems remarkable now, the visitor centre was closed due to heavy snow, but today the sun is shining, so Gettysburg it is.
The drive is just over an hour and takes me through the capital of Pennsylvania, Harrisburg where Charles Dickens visited in 1842.
I arrive at the visitor centre and buy a ticket for ‘Theatre, Cyclorama and Museum’. The movie theatre is my first stop and I watch a film about the Battle of Gettysburg about which I know nothing at all. Like most Englishmen my only knowledge of Gettysburg is carved into the walls of the Lincoln Memorial in DC.
I apologise to my American readers who presumably know all of this from school history lessons, but the story of the battle deserves airing:
The American Civil War had already been raging for two years and Robert E Lee, The Confederate military leader, decided that he needed to make a pro-active strike into Pennsylvania. The town of Gettysburg was a strategically desirable location as it was the meeting of place of ten major roads. In July 1863 The Confederate forces were in good spirits having just scored an important victory over the Union in Virginia.
On July 1 the opposing forces clashed for the first time and during that day and the following one Lee’s forces gained the upper hand in both numbers and position. By the end of July 2 the Union army was almost surrounded, but they had the great advantage of holding the high ground. On the night of the 2nd the opposing generals (General George Meades led the Union forces) moved their various battalions around the battlegrounds as if they were pieces in a chess game.
July 3 1863 was a bloodbath. Lee attacked with the superior might of his infantry, but Mead’s men, gathered on Cemetery Ridge, held fast and fought back with rifle and cannon fire. As the day wore on the Union troops began to gain the upper hand and the Confederates were forced to retreat into Virginia. In the fields around Gettysburg over 8,000 human corpses and around 3,000 equine ones lay in the mud. The Civil War continued to rage on with other battles in other towns, but Gettysburg had to cope with the aftermath here.
After the film finishes we are guided to an escalator which takes us into the centre of one of the most remarkable exhibits I have ever seen. The 360⁰ cyclorama shows the entire battle field, and as the light and sound show starts the story of the battle is re-told. Flashes of light and loud sound effects bring the painting to life and the real horror of the scene is made even more real by the artist’s surprisingly lurid representations of the dead and wounded.
What is most remarkable about the Cyclorama is that it was painted in 1883, and has been on display ever since – firstly in Boston and later here in Gettysburg itself. It is an astounding piece of work and a remarkable historical document.
The museum area is well presented and takes the story (the details of which are becoming familiar now), to a further level and it is here that the chess analogy really begins to become apparent. Two generals trying to out-smart each other, while their troops fell. The tragic thing is that I could have written that sentence about any number of conflicts during the course of the human race’s presence on this planet.
I leave the visitor centre with the feeling that I have really learned something today. In the car park there is a map dispenser and a brief look confirms that Cemetery Ridge is only a short drive away, and as I feel like some fresh air I decide to visit the battlefield itself.
And now it becomes real: Horribly, tragically, bloodily real. I had learned that the Union forces occupied high ground on Cemetery Ridge, but the ground is almost flat, there is nothing more than the slightest rise here. The stockades and low stone walls are just as they were represented in the Cyclorama and those images of screaming soldiers are haunting me. Right here, where I am standing, on the ground that I am looking at, thousands of men died. And this battle lasted for only three days in a war of four years.
I have stood and had the same feelings at Battle (1066), Agincourt (1415, 1914-18, 1939-45), and Crete (1941) and there is the same sense of inevitability about each place: lessons are just never learned. If an alien being were to study the history of the human race it would conclude that to be human is to crave conflict.
Cemetery Ridge is thankfully a sombre and respectful tribute to the fallen and the road is lined with stone memorials to all of the battalions that fought here. I am sure that there are tacky ‘experiences’ in town, but the battlefield is protected and preserved carefully.
Behind Cemetery Ridge is the Soldier’s National Cemetery where Abraham Lincoln gave his famous address in November of 1863. The Civil War graves are impressive but even more poignant are the more modern graves of servicemen: each has a Christmas wreath laid against the bright white stone.
It has been a difficult visit but a greatly educational one. I am glad that I came.
Back at the hotel I have a brief nap in my room, before going to dinner in The Harvest restaurant, which although part of the hotel, is not actually in the building itself. The Harvest is a lot less formal than The Circular Dining Room and specialises in simple grilled cooking, sourcing its food from organic local farms. The décor is smart but simple, and I enjoy a delicious pork chop with a baked potato and rainbow carrots.
It is amazing to think that since I first came to Hershey the hotel has built Harvest, added a spa and completely re-modelled the dining room; and yet, despite all of these modernisations, the dear old lady is still grand and elegant and provides superb hospitality with unrivalled service.
Yes, from a performing point of view it isn’t the easiest stop on my tour, but it is one of the most luxurious and it is always a pleasure to stay here.
Gettysburg National Military Park: http://www.nps.gov/gett/index.htm