Saturday, December 20, 2014

Our Happy 30th Anniversary

In our last post I promised to follow up with more details on our trip to England. This is to follow up. Get comfortable if you plan to read this whole post.

We departed from JFK airport in New York on Thursday Oct. 23 and flew to Gatwick airport, South of London, arriving around noon on the 24th. There we rented (ok, “hired”) a car to drive for the first 6 days of our trip. In our whole trip I think we only made three wrong turns and the first one was when we came right out of the airport. Thanks to the abundance of roundabouts in England, that mistake was quickly remedied and we drove through terrible traffic on the M23 and M25 to Windsor. We took with us our GPS (or, SatNav as the locals call it), loaded with maps of England. It was an absolute lifesaver and we feel it was indispensable for the trip we planned with so much driving.

We arrived in Windsor around 3PM after having flown through the night with not much sleep. However, we forged ahead and visited Windsor Castle that afternoon.  At the castle we toured St. George’s Chapel, and the state apartments. Both were beautiful and magnificent.

After touring the castle we spent the night at a B&B in Windsor called “Dee and Steve’s”. Michelle researched and booked all of our accommodations before our trip and this B&B was a wonderful place to stay. We would recommend it without hesitation.

The next day, Saturday, we left Windsor and headed to Stonehenge, our next stop.  Anyone who has used a GPS knows that it sometimes takes you on roads that you might not have thought to take. This was the case during our whole trip, but since we were on vacation and wanted to see the country we didn’t mind it a bit.  We arrived at Stonehenge around noon on Saturday after enduring horrible traffic on the A303 for the last 3 miles before Stonehenge.  We were about 30 minutes late for our reservation time, but they were not particular about the times so we had no problem getting our tickets. Stonehenge is one of many so called, English Heritage sites. English Heritage sites offer what is called an Overseas Visitor Pass. This pass allows you entrance to many such sites throughout the country. We bought it in advance and picked it up at Stonehenge. We would recommend this as well to anyone visiting the country. There are many places we went because we had the pass and it made it free, or half-price.

Stonehenge was fascinating to visit. The countryside around is largely flat and the day we were there it was a bit windy, but very pleasant.

After leaving Stonehenge we drove to Bath. The entire city of Bath is apparently a UNESCO world heritage site. We got there about 3PM and, after wading through traffic, found a place to park.  One picture below we took in Bath just to remember the car we drove.  We walked to the site of the Roman Baths and took the tour there.  It was amazing to see these ancient baths and learn how they were built and have been used over the years.

Saturday night we spent at the White Hart Inn in Bath. The next morning we drove to the area around Gloucester.  Our first stop was the Gadfield Elm Chapel. This tiny building, on an unbelievably tiny road, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, was the first church building owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons).  If you’re wondering how the first building owned by a church founded in New York in 1830 could be a building in a Gloucestershire backwater you can read more about that here.

We gave ourselves a self-guided tour of the chapel, which was quick, because it’s a tiny place. Then we drove over to Gloucester and attended church in the Gloucester Ward. After church we drove over to the Gloucester Cathedral and toured it. They were offering tours of the crypt that day so we were able to go there, which you can’t do every day.  For fans of the Harry Potter franchise you should know that this Cathedral was used in one of the Harry Potter films.  While walking to the cathedral the church bells were ringing and it was fun to listen to them.

After leaving Gloucester we were headed toward Stratford-upon-Avon, which is where we planned to spend Sunday night. At this point we had to make the painful decision to bypass some things that might have been fun to do had we had more time. We bypassed Tewkesbury Abbey, and Sudley Castle and just contented ourselves with our drive through the Cotswolds.  En route we called the guest house where we were staying that evening and got directions as to where to park, we were told to park on their “frontage”. This was puzzling to us at first, but when we arrived it became clear what it meant. We were supposed to pull right up over the curb and onto a patch of pavement right in front of the building. It was a new concept to us, but as with most things in England it was extremely space efficient. Stratford-upon-Avon is the birthplace, and burial place of William Shakespeare.  Our schedule on this trip was tight, so we did not take any official tours in this town. We spent Sunday night in the Emsley Guest House, which I believe was our favorite place to stay in the entire trip. On Monday morning we simply walked around the town and enjoyed the scenery, the history, the river, the swans, and went to see where Shakespeare was buried.

After our short tour we got back in the car and headed to Warwick Castle. We had heard it is one of the best preserved castles in England. What we also learned is that it has been turned into a bit of a commercial venue. Nevertheless, it was still fun to visit and see the castle, climb the turrets and see the armor and weapons of the knights.  Because we were there during the week preceding Halloween the castle was decorated accordingly. What better place could host a Halloween celebration than a castle? It’s got dungeons, they had witches and headless horsemen. It was a perfect Halloween setting. We climbed the tall turret at Warwick Castle going around and around the small circular stone staircases that lead up and down. It was the first of many such staircases we would climb on this trip. One of the things we realized on this trip was just how ancient the history in England is. Warwick castle had signs thanking visitor for helping them celebrate their 1,100th birthday!

From Warwick Castle our next planned stop was the small town of Brooksby. But between us and Brooksby was Kennilworth Castle with its Elizabethan Gardens. We didn’t have much time to spend here, but since entrance was free with our English Heritage pass, we felt we could make an abbreviated stop here. We visited for just about an hour before we were on our way again.

We arrived in the small town of Brooksby at about 4PM. The building which was previously Brooksby Manor is now a reception hall associated with the Brooksby Melton agricultural college. The staff graciously allowed us to see their central hall and visit the adjacent church of St. Michael and All Angels. Since the buildings are part of an active college there was not much else to do, so we drove off in the direction of the town of Hoby and found the spot we were looking for. It’s the exact spot where our son, Brett, had taken his picture when he was serving as a missionary in the area back in 2010.

From Brooksby we headed to our next stop, which was Cambridge. This meant driving a considerable distance after dark. Let me state here that this was the most nail-biting driving we did on our whole trip. It was dark, I felt awkward driving on the left, and the speed limits on the tiny British roads seemed amazingly fast.  After quite an adventure-filled drive we arrived at the Ashley Hotel in Cambridge. We got up Tuesday morning to glorious weather. We had worried about visiting England in late October and had been warned that it could be quite rainy. As it turned out we enjoyed great weather during all but one day of our trip, and the weather on this Tuesday was truly magnificent. It was perfect because on this day we wanted to take a punting tour on the River Cam. We learned a lot about the town and colleges that make up Cambridge University on this river trip.

After punting we walked into town and toured the Kings College Chapel. What an amazingly beautiful church. This day in Cambridge was one of the real highlights of the trip. Partly because of the weather and partly because of the beautiful buildings we were able to see.

Some time in mid-afternoon we decided it was time to leave and we began our next drive to Canterbury. This drive was a bit long, due partly to hitting the outskirts of London at rush hour, but we finally got to Canterbury at about 5:30PM. We were a bit rushed because we wanted to attend and listen to their Evensong service. So we quickly checked into the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge, parked and dashed into the Canterbury Cathedral just in time to catch most of the service. They had a wonderful choir and organ. It was a beautiful service.

The next morning, we got up and toured the Cathedral. The Abbey in Canterbury was initially started in about the year 600. That’s right, about 1,400 years ago! The Cathedral itself only dates back to the time of William the Conqueror – 1066AD! A mere 948 years ago.

In the early afternoon on Wednesday, we went back to our car to find not one, but two parking tickets on our windshield. In our haste the night before, we had placed our parking permit on our dashboard without filling it out. The town of Canterbury has since graciously agreed to rescind our fines since we were able to explain our case and provide proof of payment. Lesson learned.

We next drove the short distance to Dover, but by now the weather had turned very foggy and rainy. We drove to the White Cliffs of Dover, but could barely even make them out through the fog.

This made it easy to shorten our stay there and we then headed to the adjacent Dover Castle.  This was another English Heritage site. We toured the castle and climbed up and down many more circular stone staircases. We saw them telling spooky ghost stories to children in one of the chambers. Dover castle has been around since Roman times and the remnants of a Roman lighthouse are still there.

At about 4:30PM we decided to head back to Gatwick. Our arrival at Gatwick was the end of our driving tour. We’re so glad we “hired” the car and took this trip because we saw so much more of the country, including tiny, out-of-the-way, places on our own schedule. We were able to stay in B&Bs and smaller hotels and meet locals in a way that most tourists never do.

From Gatwick we took the Southern railway to Victoria Station in London. Victoria Station is a short walk from the Cherry Court Hotel where we stayed. If you’re interested in efficient use of space, England is your country. And if you’re interested in the ultimate in space efficient rooms, the Cherry Court Hotel is for you. Our room was very tiny, but it had a private bath; and for a hotel located as conveniently as it is you can’t beat it for the price.

On Thursday morning we took the Tube (London’s subway) to Westminster. We came out and saw Big Ben and Parliament immediately, but then turned and walked back through St. James Park toward Buckingham Palace, where we watched the changing of the guard. Did you know that the soldiers at Buckingham Palace don’t always wear red coats? Neither did we. This day they were all dressed in gray (or is it grey?) coats. With an amazingly large throng of people we watch the ceremony.

On this day we also visited the Wellington Arch and the Apsley house, home of the Duke of Wellington. Both are English Heritage sites. We had not heard of the Apsley house before, but were glad we went. Among other things, there you can see the sword taken from Napoleon at Waterloo.

From the Apsley house we took the Tube to Trafalgar Square, and then walked to Piccadilly Circus.

Friday morning we were up bright and early so we could visit the Tower of London as soon as it opened. We had heard the best way to see the Crown Jewels was to get there first thing. This we did and as this particular day unfolded we realized it was the best decision we could have made. Because we had gotten there early we were able to see the crown jewels without waiting in line at all. This was Friday, October 31st; Halloween.  It also happened to be the warmest Oct. 31st on record. It was sunny and 70⁰F. This also combined with a special display they were having at the Tower commemorating Remembrance Day (Veterans Day in the US). In the mote surrounding the Tower they had placed red ceramic poppies; one for each life lost in World War I. We in the USA have no concept for the sacrifices endured by the British people during the Great War. The display at the Tower was beautiful and moving, and tens of thousands were there to see it.  The press of crowds made it almost scary.

After the Tower, we took the Tube to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral. St. Paul’s is another beautiful cathedral. Here we climbed yet more circular staircases, ultimately climbing to the Golden Gallery, 111 meters (364 feet) above ground. From there you get amazing views of London that you can’t get many other places, except perhaps, the London Eye; which is where we headed next.

We heard that the best time to ride the London Eye was at sunset. We wanted to do that, but the line is very long and timing things to do that can be a challenge. We learned that you can buy tickets in advance and that you cannot ride before your ticket time. But, you can ride any time after your ticket time. So on Wednesday afternoon we had purchased tickets for 10AM on Friday. Then we showed up around 3:30 on Friday and gauged when to get into line. We managed to hit it perfectly. The sun set while we were riding so we got to see the lights coming on all over London. When we came down we were able to see the many sites around Westminster with their lights on, which make them beautiful.

It was late after the Eye, but we decided we’d make a dash for the British Museum. We got there one hour before they closed. Conveniently, they had a pamphlet giving you highlights to see in about an hour. We took the lightning tour and were so glad we did. We got to see, among other thing, the frieze from the Parthenon and the Rosetta Stone.

On Saturday, we got up and went to visit Westminster Abbey, but found out that it was closed to the public for a special meeting for Scouts relating to Remembrance Day.  At this point in our trip we hardly felt cheated, having seen so many other cathedrals.  We took some pictures around the Abbey and Parliament, then took the Tube back to Trafalgar Square where we did another lightning tour; this time of the National Gallery. Michelle especially enjoyed seeing the Monet paintings.

After the Gallery we took the Tube one last time to our Hotel, then the Southern railway to Gatwick, and the flight back to JFK. In retrospect it feels like it was a bit of a whirlwind trip, but it was a fantastic experience and a perfect way to celebrate 30 years of marriage and the raising to adulthood of 4 children.

Congratulations if you read all the way to here!