Merrie Olde England
What’s the best way to travel from Paris to London? Take the “Chunnel”, everyone said. That’s the tunnel that was dug 250 feet under the English Channel. While that in itself seems miraculous to me, I couldn’t believe how easy it was to make this trip. All we did was go to the station, get on a high-speed train, kick off our shoes, and voila! 35 minutes later we were in London. We had crossed the Straits of Dover, underwater.
Phil loves big cities so London fit the bill for him. He loved the iconic red buses, the famous bridges, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Abbey Road, eating fish and chips and, of course, sampling English pubs. He easily mastered the underground transit system, called the Tube, so we could go anywhere in London, with me hanging on to his shirt tail.
London was a wonderful place for us to splurge on accommodations. We had long saved our Marriott points for a special occasion and we found it. We used them to get ourselves an 8-night stay at the exclusive Hyde Park Marriott. We also splurged and bought the executive lounge privileges, which gave us breakfast, cocktails and a light dinner. It also included something everyone must try in England – afternoon tea, complete with cucumber and butter sandwiches on white bread with the crusts removed.
I must admit that I rather preferred the scones with clotted cream and jam or the little cakes. But in England, you gotta have the tea, which over time I came to enjoy.
Our hotel was situated by the famous Hyde Park, so I could easily go there on my morning exercise walks. Horse riders, brave souls swimming in the lake and the Princess Diana Memorial were on my daily route. If it was raining – yes, it rains in London – a handsome doorman in a black top hat would pop open a brolly (umbrella) for me to take along
Stonehenge and avebury Stone circles
Less than 90 miles east of London lies the amazing Stonehenge, Britain’s best known prehistoric site. We booked a tour with an archeologist who had dug at the site and was eager to share the site with us. He filled us with wonder as he explained how, some 4500 years ago, these enormous rocks were brought here from some other place by ancient Neolithic and Bronze Age people. They artfully arranged these enormous stones to create an ancient temple aligned on the movements of the sun.
Scholars say the stones may have been brought from as far away as southwest Wales. Some of the standing stones weigh up to 50 tons and it likely took 1000 men to move each one into position. It is still not known why, and how, Stonehenge was built. Seeing it for myself evoked a sense of mystery, power, endurance, and just plain awe.
About 25 miles from Stonehenge is another similar marvelous and mysterious site – Avebury Stone Circles. The stones here were erected some 500 years earlier than Stonehenge. While Stonehenge is cordoned off from the hoards of tourists who visit it, you can walk out among these lesser-visited Avebury stones, at least for now. There are even sheep grazing around them. It was a magical feeling wandering around in the midst of something this old and mysterious.
Essential Englishness – the countryside
Our next adventure took us to the marvelous English countryside where we had the good fortune to stay in two iconic English “big houses”. The first one was 5 hours northwest of London in the Lakes District, famous for its idyllic lakes-and-hills landscape. It was a splendid 17th century country house in Lancaster. Thurnham Hall can be traced back to 1068, before the Doomesday Book.
The Doomesday Book, now in The National Archives, records the results of the great survey ordered by William the Conqueror after he invaded England. King William sent out surveyors to assess the land and land holdings to determine how much he was now owed in taxes.
One evening a local historian gave a presentation and tour of Thurnham Hall and the nearby church. Thurnham has been owned by Earls and Lords and Colonels and daughters (or rather, their husbands), by spinsters and Catholic virgins and those imprisoned for treason, and even some American descendants. It still has its impressive Jacobean Great Hall where cocktails and dinner are served nightly. It also has its own chapel, which was built when one of the Catholic spinster owners had a falling-out with the nearby church that she had financed.
Our historian is a deacon at the church. On our tour he pointed out the lovely chancel arch painting by Henry Doyle, the uncle of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes’ fame. We saw other interesting objects, such as the small challis, an important object used during Catholic mass, that the church priest would take with him when he had to flee to the “Priest’s Hide”.
The “Priest’s Hide” is a tiny, hidden room which Catholic sympathizers built in their homes so the priest could hide from persecution. Catholics were persecuted in England after Henry VIII was denied a divorce by the Pope and consequently denounced Catholicism and formed the Anglican Church. We saw Thurnham Hall’s Priest Hide in our tour of the big house. When the priest had to hide here, he took that small “travel” challis into the hiding place with him.
Over the years houses like this have often fallen into disrepair as they became too expensive to maintain. We see this in the TV show Downton Abbey, where the manor was kept going by the money from the American wife or by the fortune of the daughter’s husband. Currently, the two houses we stayed in are hotel/timeshares and wedding venues, but lucky for us, they have retained some of their original character. Fortunately, too, they have modernized for today’s travelers. We couldn’t have been more pleased, well, unless they had come with a “downstairs” staff to cook, clean and dress us, like at Downton Abbey.
Our other country home
We spent the following week in the East Midlands, that is, the eastern side of the middle of England. Barnsdale Hall was originally constructed in 1890 for the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam as a family hunting lodge. Its location is in the heart of one of the most prestigious fox hunts in the country. Fitzwilliam regularly played host to Royalty, including Edward, the late Duke of Windsor, and the cream of England’s aristocracy.
During the postwar years the Hall fell into disrepair and, like Thurnham Hall, passed through the hands of a variety of owners. In the 1970’s two nearby valleys were flooded to create a reservoir. Rutland Water, Europe’s largest man-made lake, is now a nature reserve which attracts a large number of endangered species, particularly the osprey. From what we saw, sailing regattas seem to be a favorite past time as well. Barnsdale Hall expanded in the ’80’s and ’90’s and became a hotel/timeshare on the shores of Rutland Water. Its 26 mile long shoreline was a favorite spot for Phil and me to take walks and enjoy nature.
Infatuated with Englishness
As Americans we were fascinated with castles, big houses, thatched roofs, English gardens and royalty. Some Brits found this amusing. One of these was our friend from Manchester, whom we met while traveling in Viet Nam. Beau met up with us at Thurnham Hall and we toured Lancaster Castle together. I think she enjoyed seeing how excited we were about all things English. I explained to her that you just don’t see many castles or houses with thatched roofs in the USA.
13th century Lancaster Castle was a different sort of castle. We didn’t see a lot of lovely dinnerware and grand portraits in this castle. Rather, it is well known as the site of the Pendle witch trials in 1612. The castle was a prison until the 1900’s and the tour guide locked some of us willing women in a prison cell, just to “see how it was”. Not pleasant, was my reaction.
Lancaster has been called “The Hanging Town” as the court there in the castle has sentenced more people to hang than any other outside London. We stood at the spot where, as the townspeople watched, a noose was tied around the doomed person’s neck while he or she stood on a bucket. (Yes, there were some “she’s”.) The hangman would “kick the bucket” out from under the prisoner so the noose would tighten. If they didn’t die soon enough, a sympathizer would “pull their leg” to tighten the rope and end the doomed person’s agony. Now you know how the terms “kick the bucket” and “pull my leg” came into use!
best bread in England
While wandering around in quaint English towns with equally quaint names like Stamford, Oakham, Uppingham and Market Harborough, we came upon a bread shop claiming to be the “Best Bakery in Britain”. It was also named “Baker of the Year”. With such accolades, we had to give it a taste test. By George, I think they’re right!
Hambleton Bakery’s Master baker comes from a family who have been Master bakers for generations in Bath and Liverpool. He says he didn’t start out to produce a ‘health food’ but to rediscover the taste of good bread that can only come from “unadulterated organic flour, salt and water using the slow, traditional processes that made the bread that fed our ancestors.”
Hambleton Bakery ferments its dough for up to 24 hours and bakes the bread in a wood-fired oven. People who usually have trouble eating bread often find they can tolerate the long-fermented bread from this bakery. Hambleton bakers say the wheat they use retains its vitamins and minerals because it is stone-ground at a local windmill.
A windmill? This we had to see….
Here is an email that Phil wrote to our daughter in San Francisco. It gives some insight into his take on England:
I never had a desire to visit England. I just couldn’t see anything of interest other than the Beatles and Eric Clapton. I have to admit that I was wrong. Its a beautiful country with a long history that seems very familiar because of our cultural connections. Like WWII, The Hobbit, Shakespeare, Kings & Queens, Castles and all the other stuff we associate with England.
I really enjoy the Medieval country villages. Many villages are still as they were in the 17th century. Its really amazing how old they are yet they’re alive and thriving in the 21st century.
I forgot to mention the challenge I’ve experienced while driving on the left. You know they drive on the wrong side here. Its very weird. My rental car has the steering wheel on the right side but the real challenge is shifting a manual transmission with my left hand while trying not to have a head-on collision! It took some getting use to but I think I’ve got it down.
Have you visited England? What did you like best? Please share your thoughts in the Leave a Reply section below. Thank you for reading the post Merrie Olde England on carolsuestories.com.Tweet