My husband Dennis and I have always had a passion for travel, but we couldn’t always afford to take our dream trips. Our first big trip together was Italy, 1998. We then dropped into a rhythm of taking one big international trip every couple of years. I wrote about our 2000 trip to Paris in a prior blog. We then visited Australia in 2002 (it took us 10 years of collecting frequent flyer miles to make that one) and England in 2004.
We flew into Heathrow, with plans to spend a few days in London, then renting a car for a week-long road trip through the rest of England. We’d already settled into our comfortable routine of Dennis doing all of the driving while I navigated. I don’t really like driving and have an unnatural obsession with maps, so that arrangement suits me just fine. The fact that they drive on the wrong side of the road and most of the streets are about as wide as an alleyway only heightened my reluctance to get behind the wheel.
Three brilliant days in London
My approach to vacations, especially European, is to turn them into field trips. Since it was our first time in London, of course I had to cram in all of the major sights. After sleeping off our jet lag, the next morning found us at the Tower of London. I wasn’t sure what to expect and was a little worried that we were walking into a cheesy tourist trap. Instead I loved it. The famous Beefeaters lead the tour, and we were blessed to get a very handsome bearded Beefeater bear as our tour guide. He was as interesting to listen to as he was fun to watch. The Tower has a fascinating history, built by William the Conqueror and used to house famous political prisoners throughout the ages. One story that has stuck with me the most over the years is the one about the young Princes of the Tower, imprisoned and then murdered by their uncle in a plot to take the throne; they were cursed to haunt the Tower for eternity. Needing to see something pretty after all those tales of suffering and death, we spent time marveling at the treasured Crown Jewels. We then finished our tour saying hello to the famous ravens, who were nearly as cute as our Beefeater.
Next stop, the Tower Bridge. While I thought the original was off enjoying the sun in Lake Havasu, AZ, I quickly learned that the famous London Bridge is a wee bit upriver. This one was built in the late 19th c, and despite not being the one of nursery rhyme fame, it’s very impressive. After spending some time with the bridge that has not fallen down, we capped off our day with a nice evening stroll along the Thames.
Our second day in London centered around Westminster, Big Ben and Parliament. We spent the majority of our time in Westminster Abbey, its amazing history writ on graves imbedded in the floor. The number of Royals and other luminaries buried there is mind-boggling. I tiptoed around the edges, uncertain whether it was ok to walk on the actual grave markers. I spent too much time reading about the amazing lives chronicled in the Poet’s Corner and Royal tombs. I love churches, much to my husband’s chagrin. My love springs not so much out of any religious fervor as it does my passion for the historical and architectural. The architecture of Westminster is truly impressive, and I loved ending my time there in the cloisters quietly contemplating life’s mysteries.
From there we walked to Buckingham Palace in time to see the changing of the guard. We stood outside the Dominion Gates, waiting by the edge of the Victoria Monument fountain for the show to start. If you go make sure to get there early because it gets crowded. Normally happening between 11am and noon, the ceremony is subject to time changes and cancellations so check the schedule before you go.
We spent the morning of day three at St. Paul’s Cathedral, because after a half day in Westminster Abbey I had to torture Dennis with another church. Built in the late 17th c by famed architect Christopher Wren, it’s an masterpiece of the English Baroque style. The climb to the top is well worth it for breathtaking views over the city, if the 550 steps up don’t take your breath away first. Declining to climb, Dennis just waved at me from below.
Being a fan of ancient history, our next excursion was to the British Museum, home of the Elgin marbles, the Rosetta Stone and some very interesting mummies. After enjoying the exhibits, we soaked up the scene in crowd filled Trafalgar Square before taking in a West End play. We saw Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia” starring Jonathan Pryce and Eddie Redmayne. While the acting was fantastic, I found the play itself a bit disconcerting. If you want to read more about it, here is The Guardian’s 2004 review.
London to York
We then picked up our car to head north. We were lucky enough to be given a convertible and even luckier to have a day nice enough to put the top down. So away we go with the wind in our hair. I mentioned my love of maps, so of course as the navigator I had to get my map out and get to work. My luck took a turn however – the minute I opened the map, the wind greedily grabbed it from my hands. Maybe a convertible wasn’t the best idea after all? The map went flying down the highway with no hope of retrieval, so our next stop was a petrol station to buy a replacement. The top came up for the rest of our drive.
A few hours later we arrived in York, heading straight off to visit the York Minster. Completed in 1472, it’s one of the largest Cathedrals in Northern Europe, with the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world. Our timing was perfect as we walked in on a rehearsal of the York boys choir. While we admired the church, I was spirited back to medieval times by the sound of those angelic voices echoing off the cathedral walls. Even Dennis, unhappy as he was that I had dragged him to yet a third church in as many days, was moved.
After a night in York, we spent the next day at Castle Howard. I loved the series “Brideshead Revisited” and imagined Jeremy Irons wandering throughout the estate. You can spend hours touring the gardens, and I especially recommend taking a hike out to see the Temple of the Four Winds. After touring the grounds, I agreed with the writer James Boswell’s observation that “a pheasant at Castle Howard lived better than a Duke anywhere else.” The house is a spectacular example of Baroque architecture, with painted ceilings and opulent decoration in every room. It’s a worthwhile day trip from York.
York to Edinburgh, then south again
From York, we drove to Edinburgh, and since this is about England I’m going to save that city for a future post. After a couple of days in that wonderful city, we drove back down into England. We visited the Lake District, home to a slew of literary greats including Beatrix Potter. As we drove through the National Park, I could imagine how she conjured up her tales of Peter Rabbit from the majestic scenery all around us.
Continuing south we spent our next day driving through the Cotswolds. I was charmed. Those rolling hills ended up as my favorite part of England, full of thatched cottages and wonderful town names like Stow-on-the-Wold and Upper Slaughter. A day wasn’t enough to properly explore the area and a return visit is high on my list for future travel.
Before returning the car to Heathrow and flying home, we wanted to see Windsor Castle. Sadly, the tour of the main castle was closed that day, and our only option was to see a special Royal Doll exhibit. 50£ to see some dolls, no thank you! We skipped the castle and opted for a pint instead, making a toast to return to England again soon.