We had a great time wandering around southern England. Neither Kim nor Abby had been here before, so they got the full dose of "the-same-but-different" that is the UK. They took the non-stop from Gatwick, and then National Express up to MK. It seems they had quite the local color on the bus, with a thick-accented driver who refused to answer questions about travel because he was a driver, not an information service. I picked them up at the coachway and let them relax at my house while I finished the day at work. Took them to the Swan, my stand-by local pub, for dinner. Kim is more inquisitive than most, and was really interested in its history. Turns out the pub was built in the late 17th century, and has been added to and remodeled to get to its current state. This is evident from the open fire and the low-beamed ceilings, but when you stop to think that you're having dinner some place people have been eating since the late 1600s, that's actually amazing.
On Friday we'd hoped to go to Cambridge for the day, but the weather wasn't cooperating. There was a snowstorm all over the eastern part of the country, with as much as a foot of snow in Kent (that's the part closest to France, for those not familiar with the counties here in the UK). Cambridge was in the snow belt but MK and London were just a little wet and cold, so we scrapped Cambridge and headed to the city. We had tea at the Orangery of Kensington Palace (my favorite tea, plus it's affordable) and then we walked through Hyde Park and Knightsbridge. Did a little tour of Harrods, then headed to South Kensington for a delightful dinner at the little Italian place I've come to rely on for inexpensive dinners. Had a good table, there were lots of other folks there to make the atmosphere lively, and we had a marvelous dinner. Even splurged on desserts....killer lemon tart, creamy strawberry gelato, and a rich tiramisu. (We'd walk enough to justify three desserts...London gets your 10,000 steps in.)
Saturday was also a London day. We'd had big plans for seeing sites, shopping AND taking in a show, but we realized in pretty short order that we were not going to do it all in one day. So, here's what we DID cram in:
- Westminster Abbey - It's a great way to start the day...you get off the tube and as you come up the steps you practically run into Big Ben. Literally. The steps have to turn because the lower wall is in front of you. So we did the outside viewing of the Houses of Parliament and BB, walked to the Abbey and only had to wait about 15 minutes to get in. Not bad on a Saturday. We spent about an hour and a half in the abbey looking at windows and graves and the coronation chair. The abbey is still one of my favorite places in London. It's been around since William the Conqueror, and it's great fun to see all the funky graves. I'm particularly fond of Elizabeth I, who shares her grave with her sister Mary (Bloody Mary, the 5 year queen who brought the Spanish Inquisition to England). You have to read the fine print to know Mary is in there with her...it's all about Elizabeth, much as their pre-death days were. And as tour guide, at the Abbey I learned to remind Abby to keep her hands on her ticket. She has a tendency to pay and stow the stub without thinking about needing it later on.
- Tower of London - It seemed to be Engineering Weekend on the Tube, as practically every line had reduced or stopped service, which made getting around difficult. We took a cab from WA to the Tower, since both the Circle and the District lines were closed for the weekend. Grabbed some fish and chips for a chippy in the square, and then went into the Tower. Yet another "oh-my-God-it's-old" moment, as you realize that this has been around for almost 1000 years. (The White Tower was built in 1078.) It's got a great history, as a palace, a prison, and a fortress, and so they have made the tours a little colorful to play up the history. All the guards are dressed as Beefeaters (like the guy on the gin bottle), and there are lots of "this marks the spot" signs wherever you look. There's a great little display explaining the deaths of the two young princes (sons of Edward IV) that were killed there, supposedly by Richard III. (Oh, the insights into Shakespeare you get when you tour England. That was a plot line I never really got, what with all the concentration on the language when I've seen the play.) The best part of the tower is the vault with the Crown Jewels. You walk through several rooms that are airing a tape of the coronation of the current queen, and then you see the various royal miters still used in ceremonies (one was missing last Saturday), and then you get to the conveyer belts. You stand on them, and they take you slowly past the cases that house the jewels. My, but they sparkle. There's a 500-something carat diamond in one of the staffs, and the emeralds and rubies boggle the mind if you try to think what they might be worth. No crowd to speak of, so we rode the belt a couple of times for full viewing.
- Okay, by then it was time to get moving before the shops closed. Took a cab to Buckingham Palace. It was not a changing of the guard day (it happens only every few days in winter), but we peered in the gate, then walked down the Mall to Trafalgar Square and into Covent Gardens. Required viewing of the Market Stalls, including a stop at Lush for bath products, and then a quick coffee and cookie before we headed home. Our big plans of the London Eye and a play were replaced by sitting down and having a nice dinner in MK.
- When we got home, I took them to Mysore, a great little curry house in Newport Pagnell. It was the first foray into Indian food for both Kim and Abby, and I believe we have some converts. Indian food really is perfect here.
Monday we headed out in the car. Stopped at Stonehenge, which I have to say is really cool. With the new path, you can get within about 10 feet of the stones, and the recorded tape is pretty good. I think I like the Druid angle the best, because I can really visualize hooded people dancing in the moonlight and sacrificing animals there. It gives you that eerie feeling that there's some unknown power afoot, and you expect Leonard Nimoy to pop out from behind a stone to tell you mystic stories of the unknown any second. The gift shop is really affordable, too. It was CRAZY cold, though, with the wind whipping across the plain. I think I'll go back in the summer. They had good coffee at the little food shop at the visitor's center, so we decided to save time and try their sandwiches for lunch. Also quite good, though I threw the last few bites of mine away because a stupid bird dive-bombed my hand trying to take it away. With all the talk of the bird flu here, decided to not eat the remaining part of the sammy (but the damn bird didn't get it, that's for sure...I buried it in the bin.)
We're not done yet, though. We were on to Bath, for a walk around the shops and time in the Roman Baths. The drive from Stonehenge to Bath is beautiful, with little Norman churches and thatched cottages and more sheep than you can count. Bath is a city that deserves a couple of days, not just an afternoon, so I'll definitely be going back. The Roman baths rock. For those who haven't been there, they are the best-preserved Roman mineral baths in the world (fed by a hot spring), and they date back to the 1st century AD. Fascinating place, and they've done a good job of preserving the foundations in the tour, as well as recreating what it would have looked like in Roman times.
Headed to a posh hotel called The Grove outside of London, where we spent the night in luxury. My room had a grand piano, a king-sized bed, a fireplace, and a fabulous bathtub. The sales contact treated us to dinner in the fine-dining restaurant, so we ate delicious food (though I'm not sure any of us could really tell you what some of it was.) My venison was excellent...crusted in nuts and with a pomegranate sauce. Yum.
Took a tour in the AM (the price you pay for free lodging in our business), and then headed to Windsor. Found a shop with a great little selection of antique jewelry and some new amber pieces that were absolutely beautiful. Kim and Abby got souvenirs there, then we headed up the hill. Stopped for lunch at a thai place (and it was GREAT), and then did the castle tour. The highlight of Windsor Castle are the state apartments. They have great tour guides who tell stories, and you see some really ornately palatial decor in there. It's also quite interesting to see the parts restored after the devastating fire in the early nineties. You'd never know that several rooms had been destroyed. We got the giggles in the palace imagining the queen in her housedress relaxing with a book in the Crimson room, and knew it was time to leave when we started deciding which room we'd call ours if we lived there. (Kim liked the Crimson room, Abby and I would have to duke it out over the Emerald Room.) Had a cup of coffee, and then I drove Kim and Abby to their Gatwick hotel and headed home. FYI, if I tell you you're staying at The Gatwick White House on your way home, make me change the reservation. It's awful. (Sorry, ladies.)
It was a great visit, and I'm learning to be quite the tour guide. Have decided to draft a visitors kit for future guests, including a little guide to the money. I watched both Kim and Abby get frustrated trying to pay with change, and finally they'd just hold their hand out and let the clerk take what they needed. I did this, too, when I first got here, but think it will save frustration in the future if I remind people that the 50p is the big one, the 20p is the angled one, and the 5p is tiny.
So the week and the weekend have been about getting caught up an sleep and getting back on a routine. I'm finally back to normal now, so we'll see what I get up to this week.