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Final Reflections on Tour de England 2014

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 “I must to England; you know that?” ~William Shakespeare (Hamlet, III, iv)

If you missed my last several posts, I recapped my recent summer trip to the sceptered isle in a series I called Tour de England 2014.  (You can start with the first one here if you missed them.)  I wanted to take this opportunity to offer some final reflections on my travel experiences and on England itself based on my time and two trips there over the past two years.

My time in England in both 2012 and 2014 was overwhelmingly positive.  For a self-confessed Anglophile, getting to spend over a month of cumulative time there so far has been very fulfilling.  I already have many ideas for future UK trips and now just need to figure out a way to financially afford them!  While I’m mulling that over, here are some of the other positives from my England experiences, in no particular order:

  • Tea, of course – and the scones that go with it; I’ve tried to make my own scones but can’t even come close to actual English ones (I’ll keep trying).  I guess tea time is more of what I enjoy – that the Brits still take time out in the afternoon (and mid-morning, and any other time they can find) to slow down and “take tea;” it’s a welcome break from whatever is going on in the middle of the afternoon and it just seems so…civilized I guess.  The buttery pastries with cream and jam are literally the icing on the top.
Taking tea in Bath

Taking tea in Bath

  • British B&Bs that give discounts beyond the normal advertised rates to solo women travelers – very much appreciated! 
  • I really liked the grocery stores in the towns I visited – specifically, their ready-to-eat meal options such as sandwiches, pre-packed salads, etc.  They’re affordable and a much easier option than a sit-down restaurant, especially for dinner when things get pretty pricey.  And they offer “meal deals” for those pre-packed options, so if for example you get a sandwich, side of pasta and a drink, the prices go down even more.  AND they always had vegetarian and vegan options, I became especially fond of Waitrose’s cheese & pickle relish sandwich.
  • TRAINS!  I love the fact that I can really go anywhere I want in the entire country without a car, although it does limit smaller side trips to more remote areas where the train doesn’t reach.  If you get your tickets far enough in advance you can get some good prices, and so far at least in my experience, the trains are almost always on time.  For someone obsessed with punctuality, I can really appreciate that.
  • On the not-having-a-car front, I really enjoyed the fact that once the train (or tube, in London) did drop me off somewhere, that meant I had to walk everywhere for the duration of my stay.  I guess I could’ve taken a taxi sometimes, but I didn’t mind the walking, and it was great exercise.  It was not uncommon at all for me to walk 5 miles or more in a day, just walking around town and seeing the sights.
  • This trip, I returned to both Stratford-upon-Avon and London, places I’d visited on my last trip.  Some people would spend their valuable vacation time in new and unfound places, but I actually really enjoyed the aspect of comfort that I felt when I stepped foot back onto familiar territory.  This was the reason I saved these two stops for my last week in England; after two weeks of visiting new and unfamiliar places, I needed somewhere that felt a little more like home to balance out the trip.
  • Other than London, the weather was perfect for my trip – and I loved that I sometimes needed to wear a jacket and scarf IN JULY.  (Those of you who can’t understand this, spend just one indescribably sweltering hot day in Austin in the summer and you’ll get it.)  Being able to just open a window and enjoy the cool breeze with NO BUGS (another unheard of aspect in Austin) was wonderful.
  • The no-bugs aspect was a big one for me – it meant I could spend all that time walking outside at any time of the day or night without the constant mosquitoes that plague me mercilessly in Austin.  If mosquitoes do exist in England I never saw, heard or felt them.  It was bliss.
  • The historical significance of, well, practically everything in England.  The British are so good at having the foresight to save, preserve, and protect things for generations to come.  The church in Thursley where my family ancestors are buried dates from SAXON times, and it plods on in stubborn but imposing fashion.  It’s comforting, knowing that what’s been there for hundreds of years (or longer) will still be there the next time I visit.  It’s such a stark contrast to what we have in many parts of America, and my own little strip-mall-laden suburb of Austin where I live feels depressingly and completely devoid of culture and historical reference in comparison.
  • The Shakespeare tube map – a brilliant spin-off the traditional tube map but everything is named after the Bard’s plays and characters.  I first saw this on a tea-tray at one of my B&Bs, and then read more about its invention (by the RSC) at the V&A Museum exhibit in London.  Especially loved the little fork and spoon icon for the Titus Andronicus station…(things get a bit messy in that play)…
Shakespeare Tub Map

Shakespeare Tub Map

Fork & Spoon at the Titus stop

Fork & Spoon at the Titus stop

A windsock for Prospero's station

A windsock for Prospero’s station

  • Sticky toffee pudding.  Why don’t we have this in America??  (Or if we do it’s probably better I don’t know about it.)
  • Swans.  I know they have a reputation for being mean but there’s nothing quite so serene as sitting on the river bank feeding a group of graceful swans.  Just seeing them cut through the water in their stylish fashion is a calming influence.
The world's best sticky toffee pudding.

The world’s best sticky toffee pudding.

The Swans of the Avon

The Swans of the Avon

I wrote about many other positives in the past few posts, including the surprise of sitting in Sir Patrick Stewart’s seat at the Royal Shakespeare Company, getting to explore the land of my original ancestors, and all the new places I visited such as beautiful Bath and medieval York.  And of course there was the thrill of being there for the kickoff of the Tour de France in Yorkshire, including seeing veteran cyclist Jens Voigt in his last ever Tour and being on the very front line for the Grand Départ.  And it was in Leeds that I saw a restored French Citroen HY Van being used as a food truck, which gave me an idea for my own business that I’m pursuing as we speak, so hopefully that turns into another positive development as well.

Seen in Leeds: I NEED one of these Citroen HY Vans for my flower truck! If you know where I can get one, please let me know, thanks!

Seen in Leeds: I NEED one of these Citroen HY Vans for my flower truck! If you know where I can get one, please let me know, thanks!

My England glasses aren’t completely rose-colored…while I do love the country, there were definitely some negatives that put a damper on things from time to time:

  • By far, bar none, no contest, the worst thing about my time in England was the overwhelming number of SMOKERS.  You’d think it would only be a problem in London or the bigger cities, but no, the puffers are everywhere.  You can hardly walk down a street without having to waft through a cloud of choking smoke, it’s very discouraging.  And hold your breath as you come out of the tube stations or the airport or any restaurant, it’s the worst at those places.  It’s such a shame that this beautiful country is marred by such an ugly habit on the part of so many people.
  • No air conditioning – now I realize that this is a typical American complaint and that the temperate climate means England doesn’t need A/C most of the time…but on those really hot days during the middle of the summer, it seems like it would make for even happier guests if lodging accommodations would invest in some small room A/C units.  Or at least ceiling fans.  I got by without it most of the time without too much discomfort, but I wouldn’t have said no to it either.  And there’s nowhere in the entire country that A/C is needed more than the tube/underground in London.  How in the world have they gone this long with un-air-conditioned tube cars??
  • It bugged me that there was a fee for entry into the beautiful riverside park & gardens in Bath, and that the gates closed pretty early in the evening.  Parks should have free public access in my opinion, open for the enjoyment of all, not just those few that can afford a hefty entry fee.
  • I’m seriously not sure I can ever eat goat cheese again after my horrible GI episode in York induced by a bad batch of the stuff…
  • I purposefully arrived in many of my destinations without much of a plan this time, other than where I was going to stay and for how long.  Two years ago I’d planned every detail of my trip down to the minute, but this time I wanted to be more spontaneous.  What I learned about myself is that I need a mix of those two styles to balance out my stress and comfort levels.  There were times I was just aimlessly wandering about with no early idea of what to do or where to go next, and instead of being relaxing it just frustrated me because I felt like I was wasting valuable vacation time.  I’m really good at planning and details and research, so I need to realize that this is not a bad thing and let that drive my experience next time.
  • On many occasions I was met with very positive reactions on the fact that I was a solo female traveler.  People in general were always very nice and welcoming to me wherever I went.  But there were definitely a few instances of bias or rudeness against me simply because I was by myself.  I’ve come to expect this sometimes but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.  It usually happened in restaurants, where it’s still apparently a very strange anomaly in England to see a solo diner (I rarely if ever saw anyone else seated/dining alone other than me); waiters would frequently ask me in surprise “No one else is joining you tonight, are you sure?” (as if I didn’t know my own dining plans) or they would place me at a “hidden” table in a corner or behind a pillar, I guess because they thought I wouldn’t want to be seen dining alone.  And on the crowded train into London on my birthday, a woman with a kid asked me to give up my seat (after asking “Is it just you?”) so she and the kid could sit there; I wouldn’t have been so bothered if it had been a baby or small child but the kid was about 8 years old, why couldn’t they have stood for the remaining 30 minute trip, why did I as the single traveler who had purchased a seat have to be the one to give up my place?  I did give them my seat (the kid sat on her lap) but it really bugged me that I was singled out for my solo traveler status.

None of these negatives are enough to deter me from future England explorations, and in a way I actually enjoy getting to know the reality of it all, not just the for-show spins put on for the tourists.  Two years ago during my 2012 trip to Stratford, I met an American woman on the city walking tour that told me she spends a month every summer in England, usually in the same place, but rents a car to go on different explorations each time for day and weekend trips; she too really enjoyed the familiarity and comfort of staying in the same place each year.  The way she described it sounded like a really enticing idea to me, although I feel there are many other regions of the UK I’d still also like to explore that I haven’t seen yet:  Cornwall, Devon, Oxford, the Lake District, the castles of Wales, even Scotland one day (although we’ll find out next week if they’ll even remain a part of the UK). 

It may surprise you to hear that the best part of my Tour de England 2014 trip actually happened about a week after I got back to the States.  I came down with a cold the day after I returned, so it was a few more days before I could see my family & nephews, which meant it had been about a month since I’d seen them.  I walked into my 3-year old nephew Wyatt’s daycare classroom to pick him up at the end of the day but he didn’t know I was going to be there – when he turned around and saw I was there, the surprise registered on his little face and he smiled and shouted “Ant Kristi!!!” and ran to wrap his little arms around my neck.  A few minutes later we picked up my other two nephews from YMCA camp, also surprising them with my return.  I waved through the window at 8-year old Truman as he stood waiting by the side of the road and his face lit up – he ran around the car to get into the backseat, threw his backpack on the floor, and then floored me with my own surprise as he reached up into the front seat to give me the biggest, tightest, longest hug he’s ever given me.  My heart and my eyes were flooded that day as I realized I was loved and missed – pretty much the best thing in the world…even trumping tea and scones.

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Thanks for reading all about my England adventures and humoring me in my Anglophile ramblings.  On to new topics again soon!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Tour de England 2014 – Week 3: London Baby!

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“Sound drums and trumpets, and to London all: And more such days as these to us befall! ” ~William Shakespeare (II Henry IV, V, iii)

At the end of the last post, I was getting on yet another train during my recent Tour de England 2014, this time leaving Stratford-upon-Avon to spend the last three days of my trip in London.  During my last trip to the UK in 2012, I also spent a few days in London and was able to see many of the sights I’d always wanted to see: the Tower of London, a play at The Globe theatre, Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, the London Eye…among many others.  But let’s face it, once could spend a lifetime in London and probably still not see everything there is to be seen, so the key to spending just a few days there is making it manageable and enjoyable – and affordable, which is not an easy feat in the most expensive city in the world.

The day I got on that train to London was my birthday, and for some reason when I mapped out my trip I thought it would be a good plan to make my birthday a transition day.  I kind of wish now in hindsight I’d just stayed in Stratford and relaxed, but there’s another lesson learned.  The day started off good with a few very nice birthday cards from my family that I’d toted around England with me (including some of the world’s cutest handwritten messages by my nephews), and then a generous ride to the train station from my B&B owners.  It’s only two hours from Stratford to London, and once I arrived at Marylebone station I purchased a familiar Oyster tube card from the machines there and assumed my London vigilant travel persona.

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From nephew Hudson, that’s me next to Big Ben! (Juggling knives, apparently…)

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A very royal birthday declaration from nephew Truman

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And from 3-yr old nephew Wyatt, that’s a birthday cake!

I went a different route this time for London accommodations, and instead of a hotel, booked a spot in a guesthouse run by a private service.  It’s like a B&B but usually these houses only host one guest at a time.  My guesthouse was located in the very (apparently) trendy Holland Park area, just adjacent to Notting Hill and pretty close to a tube stop, just a few minutes walk. 

A street in the stylish Holland Park neighborhood

A street in the stylish Holland Park neighborhood

My guesthouse in Holland Park (the yellow one)

My guesthouse in Holland Park (the yellow one)

After depositing my bags I headed back out to my next destination: a Chocolate Tour of London.  I thought this sounded good – it does, doesn’t it?  I’d booked it a few months in advance and after a few lost moments around the Tottenham Court tube stop, found our meet-up spot a few streets away in front of an Arabic coffee shop.  It was hot, hot, hot this day in London, much warmer than at any other point on my trip so far, so that made the prospect of wandering around crowded London streets in a very large tour group to un-air-conditioned tiny chocolate shops much less appealing (even with the looming reward of free chocolate).

But wander around we did, about 30 of us (way too many people for this type of tour), through high-end shopping neighborhoods and Sunday street festivals filled with what seemed like every other vacationer in London that day.  Half of the chocolate samples offered to us contained rum or tequila, so I avoided those, and the other half contained coffee beans, so out of luck there too…  But I did enjoy our short jaunt through Fortnum & Mason, which I’m told is the grocery supplier of the royal family, and savored a raspberry-and-peanut-butter truffle at the last shop that packed a cute little powerful punch of cocoa-y goodness.  I wouldn’t do the tour again, but it was interesting to see a part of London I didn’t see last time and wouldn’t have gone to on my own.

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After the tour ended I took the tube to the St. Paul’s Cathedral stop, with a few hours to kill between then and my birthday finalé planned for later that night.  I’d seen the Cathedral on my last visit so didn’t go back inside, but instead sat on a bench right outside it and Skyped with my mom for a quick birthday call, red double decker buses whizzing by every few minutes. 

St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral

I then walked south of the Cathedral, past the College of Arms (must make it in there for my next trip), and out onto the Millennium Pedestrian Bridge to make my way to the south bank across the Thames.  I love the view from both sides of this bridge: from the south side, you look straight down and can see St. Pauls…and then from the other side, you look across and you see the unmistakeable half-timbered brown and white sides of The Globe theatre.  I made my way over to The Globe and stood outside for a few minutes to listen to the sounds of “Antony & Cleopatra” that was beginning right at that time – swords clashing and Roman soldiers screaming to the cheers of the audience, it was great.  I highly recommend you see one of Shakespeare’s plays here if you get the chance; I’d seen “The Taming of the Shrew” here in 2012 and it was thoroughly enjoyable, but those authentic wooden bleachers do wreak havoc on one’s back after a while, so definitely buy a seat cushion.

South bank view from Millenium Bridge (can you see The Globe?)

South bank view from Millennium Bridge (can you see The Globe?)

View across the River Thames from the south bank (with view of St. Paul's)

View across the River Thames from the south bank (with view of St. Paul’s)

The Globe.  Iconic.

The Globe.  Iconic.

A play wasn’t on my itinerary this time – instead, I grabbed a quick and ho-hum Pizza Cafe dinner next to The Globe and then walked along the south bank of the river,  passing through back alleys alongside the Southwark Cathedral (where Shakespeare frequented when he lived in London), and crossed back over the river on the London Bridge.  I was headed back to one of the greatest sights in London (and really in all the world): the Tower of London.  I’d sent an actual snail mail request many, many months earlier to the Tower for a ticket on this night to see the ancient Ceremony of the Keys This ceremony is where they let a few visitors inside the Tower each night at 9:30 PM to watch the Yeoman Warders and sentry guards lock up the gates of this ancient fortress.

In 2012 I visited the Tower during the daytime and hobbled through the Bloody Tower with bloody shins (story here) for one of the best sightseeing tours I’ve ever been on (led by Yeoman Warder Bill Callaghan, follow him on Twitter @BillyBeefeater), but didn’t really even know about the Ceremony of the Keys that time.  I’m so glad I got a ticket for this trip – there’s a lot of pomp and yelling and actual bayonets involved, along with a huge ring of iron keys and several tall furry bear hats, and it’s really quite a spectacle to watch; the visitors even have to play a part with a verbal response at one point in the ceremony.  So if they lock the gates, how do we get out?  There’s one more side door just for this purpose through which they shuffle us at the end, with one of the Yeoman Warders gruffly barking at us “hurry up, get out!”  It was a very memorable end to my birthday and the best part of the day!

The exact point where I bit the dust in 2012...

The exact point by the Tower of London where I bit the dust in 2012…

Our Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) leading us out of the Tower of London after the Ceremony of the Keys

Our Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) leading us out of the Tower of London after the Ceremony of the Keys

The next morning I headed right back near the Tower to meet an American college friend for breakfast (she’s lived just outside of London for many years now) and then we went on a really great walking tour by London Walks called “Hidden London.”  (Their tours do cost about $15/person but the company offers a huge array of different walking tours all over the city and they’re well worth it.)  It was so great to see a familiar face after almost three weeks on the road, I nearly burst into tears when we sat down to breakfast at the relief of spending some time with someone who actually knows me.  I don’t mind traveling alone most of the time, but that feeling of comfort you get from being around someone who knows and cares about you adds a special aspect to the trip, and I was really grateful to her for making the trip and the time to hang out with me that day.

I’d heard about a special Shakespeare exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum and so after our walking tour I made my way there via the Tube.  What a massive place that museum is, I’ve never seen so much stuff-of-a-general-nature in one place – sculptures and artifacts and jewelry and paintings and china and silver and…well, just lots of stuff.  After asking three different museum docents, someone was finally able to direct me to the hidden Shakespeare corner on one of the floors.  It was very dark and somber and the exhibit items were in these shadowboxes, it was all a little macabre and not a large display at all, but I’m glad I went.  The museum also had the most striking and vibrant purple-ly blue hydrangea in their courtyard, unreal colors I never see where I live.

Part of the Shakespeare exhibit at the V&A Museum

Part of the Shakespeare exhibit at the V&A Museum

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After exiting the museum I decided to walk down the street to the famous (infamous?) Harrods Department Store.  Everyone’s heard of Harrods, and I didn’t have a chance on my last trip to visit, so I popped in for a quick look at what all the fuss is about.  What a dizzying maze of floors and departments; I especially liked the bakery and fromagerie sections, and even decided to take a break for some tea and scones in their tea room.  (I kind of wish I hadn’t, it ended up being both the most expensive and least tasty of all the cream teas I had during this trip…but now I can say I’ve had tea at Harrods I guess.)  I’m kicking myself for not remembering to visit the Princess Diana memorial in the store…maybe next time.

Larger-than-life Beefeater Bears at Harrods

Larger-than-life Beefeater Bears at Harrods

Taking tea at Harrods

Taking tea at Harrods

The next morning was the start of the last day of my 3-week trip.  I saved one of the things I’d most wanted to do for that last day: a trip to London’s New Covent Garden Flower Market – where all of London’s top florists and designers get their flowers and foliage.  After a Tube trip across the Thames to Vauxhall station, it was just a short walk to the warehouse district and the flower market.  The small sign that said “Visitor Entrance” over one of the unassuming doors belied what I saw once I entered the chilled warehouse:  flowers as far as the eye could see!  Every color, every variety, different heights and smells, with vendor after vendor filling every corner of the huge room.  And this was even after most of the day’s business had been done – I’d gotten there about 8:30 AM, but they open at 4:00 AM (!) and so I was really seeing the leftovers that day…but they were still pretty impressive leftovers!

New Covent Garden Flower Market

New Covent Garden Flower Market

Every color of anthuriums imaginable

Every color of anthuriums imaginable

There are 20 flower vendors at the Market, six plant vendors, and a few more that specialize in just foliage.  I explored for about an hour, taking a LOT of pictures of all the different offerings, and then had some tea at the little café inside the warehouse.  I saw flowers I’d never seen before, in colors I didn’t even know that existed for certain varieties, and in the midst of it all, I was surprised that I actually started to feel a little depressed; this Market is a mecca for anyone in the floral industry, and the tiny (by comparison) coolers of the few wholesalers at home now seemed woefully inadequate and just…sad.  I’ll never see this kind of variety and quality and lower prices where I live; I’d have to move one of only about four cities in the US with major flower markets, most of which are in California or on the east coast (and there’s no way I’m living in earthquake country), and even then they’d be dwarfed by this market.  And so I left with wistful feelings, glancing back over my shoulder as I walked out and thinking how lucky the local florists were to have this amazing resource at their fingertips.

Clouds of hydrangea

Clouds of hydrangea

Gobs of gerberas

Gobs of gerberas

Midnight purple callas

Midnight purple callas, a Georgia O’Keefe painting come to life

I wanted to relax on my last day in London, so after leaving the flower market I then headed back across the river to the area around Buckingham Palace.  No Changing of the Guard for me this time (one of the most overrated sights in the city, in my opinion, and I’d seen it last time); instead, I walked the length of the very peaceful St. James’ Park, which runs between the palace and the river.  Leaving the park, I strolled past Big Ben to take a few pics for my nephews, and then took the Tube up to the Kensington area, where I got pretty lost looking for a hidden city gem called the Roof Gardens.  I’d read about this oasis-on-a-rooftop some time earlier, and after walking around in circles for a while, was finally able to find it down a quiet side street.  It was worth the journey: seven floors up and through a black door, one enters into sculpted gardens with water features, shaded sitting areas, and even real flamingos!  There are actually three different gardens, in the styles of Spanish, Tudor, and English Woodlands.  I was the only one in the entire place for quite some time; eventually a few other visitors showed up but I was amazed how isolated and quiet the gardens were.  It was a great break from the bustle of the city and I’m glad I took time to find it.

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From there I walked a mile or so up to the middle of Holland Park, another really nice green space just south of my guesthouse.  On the way there I stopped to buy a sandwich, and had a nice picnic on a stone bench under huge shade trees.  It was then I noticed I was missing my rain jacket, a new one my mom had bought me just for this trip.  I suddenly remembered I’d put it down on a chair at the Roof Gardens, so I went into a restaurant in Holland Park and a nice hostess called the gardens for me; sure enough they found it and would hold it for me.  So, back another mile I walked to get my jacket, then another mile back to the park and through the rest of it to get back to my guesthouse – but not without stopping at a gelateria for a scoop to help beat the heat (did I mention how crazy HOT it was in London this time).  After resting and packing for my journey home the next day, I walked back down the street later that evening for what turned out to be a pretty decent veggie burger.  It was a good last day in London.

I’m actually not too fond of London, although I think it has its highlights.  As I mentioned before, it’s very expensive, always crowded, and I feel I have to be on even more of a heightened alert as a solo female traveler when I’m there.  The Tube is very convenient but it’s un-air-conditioned staleness gets pretty weary pretty fast in the heat of the summer.  And as nice as the area was where my B&B was located, I unfortunately had a somewhat negative experience there with the overbearing owner.  The city is iconic, and I’m glad I spent a few days there this trip, especially since I took a less-traveled route to explore some areas that most tourists probably don’t see.  But I find more with each trip that I prefer to get out of London, into the rest of England’s green hills and diverse countrysides.  Which, with any luck, I hope to do again very soon.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Tour de England 2014 – Week 3: Shakespeare Country and The Cotswolds

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“How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank” ~William Shakespeare (Merchant of Venice, V, i)

At the end of the last post detailing my recent trip to England, I’d overcome several days of unfortunate GI distress just in time to board a train back to the midlands region of the country.  I traveled from York through Birmingham to land in familiar territory and my personal favorite, Stratford-upon-Avon.  I’d visited the birthplace town of the Bard back in 2012 for the World Shakespeare Festival (just prior to the London Olympics) and really loved it, so I carved out three and half more days on this return trip to relax and enjoy this pretty little town on the river once again.

By the way, do you know why some towns in England have “on” in their name (like Bourton-on-the-Water) while others have “upon,” such as Stratford-upon-Avon?  Those with “on” find the towns built mostly or entirely on one side of the river, while those with “upon” are built on both sides of the river…or so I’m told…and there’s your English geography and name-origin lesson for the day.

For this trip to Stratford I chose to stay at Moss Cottage B&B, which I can highly recommend if you ever find yourself in that corner of the world.  I’d gotten to know the proprietor (hi Bill!) via Twitter over the past year prior to my trip, so it felt a little like meeting an old friend, and the accommodations were very lovely. The B&B was located a healthy 1-mile walk from the center of town, so I got in plenty of exercise during my stay – which simply meant I could indulge in daily cream teas and/or a wonderful sticky toffee pudding at The Opposition, another one of my favorites I discovered on my last time there.

My first afternoon back in Stratford, I strolled up to town via Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare is buried.  There is a bench on the church grounds that I like to sit on – it faces the river and is situated on a gravel pathway, with a huge weeping willow overhanging the short stone wall in-between, and the church just behind.  Sitting there, I can watch people strolling along the riverwalk on the opposite side and rowers making their way down the water.  It’s shady and peaceful and feels like “my spot.”  It’s especially nice with a light drizzly rain coming down and dripping off all the trees.

My Stratford-upon-Avon Spot

My Stratford-upon-Avon Spot

After a nice decompression session on that bench, I continued on the walkway up the river, past the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre and into the adjoining gardens, with all the canal boats and swans and Bard-inspired flower features.  It really is the loveliest town I’ve come across so far during my England travels; I know I’m a little biased (I’ve been a Shakespeare fan since the age of 16) but the town council & local businesses really do a good job of keeping everything in beautiful condition.  I stopped by a grocery store to buy a sandwich for dinner and a discounted bag of day-old bread, and found a spot to feed the Queen’s swans.  Then I was able to catch a small theatre production of “Sense & Sensibility” at the Lazy Cow, walking back by moonlight to the B&B later that night.

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Stratford’s Swans

Flower gardens inspired by Shakespeare's words

Flower gardens inspired by Shakespeare’s words

Boats on the Avon at dusk (Anyone recognize these??? :)

Boats on the Avon at dusk – Anyone recognize these??? 🙂

Moonlight on the Avon

Moonlight on the Avon

After an immense breakfast the next morning (complete with vegetarian sausage!), I set out on a walk to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, the home where Shakespeare’s wife was born & raised.  They have really beautiful sweet pea exhibits there during the summer that I’d seen last time, and so I wanted to return to visit them again.  From there I headed back into town (I did a LOT of walking that day) to visit some of the other Shakespeare houses.  I especially like New Place, which is the site where Shakespeare returned to live at the end of his life, after he’d finished writing and acting in London for many years (the house no longer exists but they know this is where it was, and it was also where he drew his last breath).  When I was here in 2012, there was an interesting and extensive archeological dig happening onsite at New Place, with labyrinths and pits and dirt everywhere; but this time, it had been filled completely in and was covered with a perfectly level green lawn.  I enjoyed standing on the site where his house had once stood and looking out at the exact view across the street that Shakespeare would’ve looked upon: the Guild Chapel, the schoolhouse where he attended classes as a boy, and the timber-framed Falcon Hotel.  I also especially like the gardens at New Place, with the old mulberry trees and the view through the flowers of the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre just down the street.

Anne Hathaway's Cottage under brilliant blue skies

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage under brilliant blue skies

View of the theatre peeking through the flowers in the New Place garden

View of the theatre peeking through the flowers in the New Place garden

Looking toward Guild Chapel through the sculptures in New Place garden

Looking toward Guild Chapel through the sculptures in New Place garden

The room where Shakespeare was born, at Shakespeare's Birthplace House

The room where Shakespeare was born, at Shakespeare’s Birthplace House

The view Shakespeare himself would have had from his final home site.

The view Shakespeare himself would have had from his final home site.

From there I headed back down a side street to the antiques store where I’d found a special silver charm there two years ago; I lost the charm after coming home, but after sifting through a few trays this time, I was able to find a replacement…not quite the same, but similar, and it felt nice to have it with me again.  I migrated towards Shakespeare’s Birthplace House and decided to go through it again; I’m glad I did, as there were new exhibits to see and new people to meet.  I spent the rest of the day just wandering and relaxing, buying some souvenir gifts, and visiting old haunts.  I admit to looking at more than a few real estate office window postings as I walked along that day, of apartments and businesses and country homes…ah, “perchance to dream.”

ONLY $827,580.00 - a bargain!

ONLY $827,580, a bargain!

The following day was Friday and I’d booked a trip ahead of time with a brand spanking new company called “Go Cotswolds,” for a day tour out southwest of Stratford to see this designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  During my trip here two years ago I’d actually mapped out a route to bike from Stratford to the Cotswolds, but it rained so much then and many roads were flooded so I played it safe and didn’t go.  So I was pleasantly surprised to find this new company (again, on Twitter), and as it turned out I was their very first official (paying) customer!  When the owner Tom picked me up at the B&B that morning about 9:45, I learned I was to be the sole client that day, so I felt pretty special getting a personal tour on their first day out.

The Cotswolds are quite famous throughout the UK, and the towns throughout the region, all their houses built of the same honey-colored stone and many with storybook thatched roofs, do get their fair share of tourists.  It’s the region itself that is the draw rather than one specific attraction – the rolling hills dotted with sheep, the tranquil streams flowing through the quaint villages filled with lovely tea rooms, and the untouched-by-time sense of peacefulness that pervades the countryside. We made about 10 stops during our 8-hour day, getting out of the mini-bus to walk around some of the towns and see some of the sights (rookie mistake: I wore new shoes I hadn’t broken in completely, without any socks, so I had a few unwelcome souvenir blisters by the end of the day).  I was surprised at the end by the ring of Rollright Stones, like a worn-down mini-Stonehenge that I’d never heard of but enjoyed seeing.  I’m glad I took the whole day to explore the famous Cotswolds, even if it was a bit of a whirlwind outing.

Good view of the honey stone buildings that make up the Cotswolds - here, in Chipping Campden

Good view of the honey stone buildings that make up the Cotswolds – here, in Chipping Campden

The most perfect "chocolate box house"

The most perfect “chocolate box house” – can actual humans really live here?

Lavender is everywhere in the Cotswolds

Lavender is everywhere in the Cotswolds

The Rollright Stones

The Rollright Stones

Saturday was my last day in Stratford, and I made the most of it with a peaceful river cruise up and down the Avon, which I wasn’t able to do in 2012 due to the flooded waterway.  As I waited for the boat to show up at the mooring, I had a nice conversation with a very elderly German woman, despite the fact she didn’t speak any English at all; she did have an electronic translation device and through gestures and smiles and a lot of typing on her part, I learned she was there with a group from Germany for the whole week.  She was 84 years old and it was her first time to Stratford, but she too had been a Shakespeare fan her whole life – another testimonial to his worldwide reach and influence.  I sat next to a couple from Wales on the boat and treated them to free drinks with some coupons I had.  We even got to witness some boat races on the river that day as we sailed gently past the theatre, church, and butterfly farm.  (If it all sounds incredibly quaint, it is, it’s like a fairytale town in many ways…)

River cruise past the RSC theatre

River cruise past the RSC theatre

River cruise down the Avon

River cruise down the Avon

You simply can’t go to Stratford without attending at least one show at the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre (or at least I can’t), and I’d purchased my ticket for Two Gentleman of Verona months in advance as the main birthday gift to myself.  I was lucky actually because this was the opening preview night of the play and was my last night in Stratford, the only chance I’d have to see a production this trip.  I’d read the play a few months prior in my weekly Shakespeare reading group in Austin, and was eager to see the RSC version since this was the first time in 45 years that The Two Gentlemen of Verona had been performed in full production on the Royal Shakespeare Theatre stage.  (It’s not one of the more popular Shakespeare plays, has the smallest cast of any of the plays, and is generally recognized by many as perhaps his first-written work.)

View out upon the town centre from balcony of RSC theatre

View out upon the town centre from balcony of RSC theatre

A light rain began to fall just as I made my way from a pre-show dinner into the theatre and found my seat high up on the first row of the second balcony.  It was really a perfectly-located seat with a prime vantage point, and as I turned around I glanced down at the seat and drew a sharp breath at what I saw:

What?????!!!

What?????!!!

I was sitting in the seat of SIR PATRICK STEWART!!  Yes that Patrick Stewart – the one I share a birthday with, the one who makes it so, the one who is without question one of the preeminent Shakespearean actors of all time.  I’ve been an uber-fan of Patrick Stewart for over twenty years now – I’ve seen every movie, TV episode and play he’s ever done, I’m pretty sure.  This random seat selection bestowed upon me by the RSC ticket office was completely unplanned, but it felt like a sign, and I stood there for a good two minutes just staring at it.  Yes it may have just been a tribute seat given to him by the RSC in honor of his magnificentness (and probably generous theatre support on his part), OR – and I choose to believe this option – this is his actual designated seat that he sits in when he takes in a show.  I pointed at it while I gaped at the couple sitting behind me, explaining my awe: “Do you see what seat I’m sitting in??  Do you see that?  I can’t believe this.  Look, his name is right on it!  I can’t believe this.  I didn’t plan this.  Do you see that?” 

It may have been the best single moment of my entire three-week trip.  And after that, how could it not be a great last night in Stratford?  The set decoration of the play was fantastic and the real dog who played the canine character of Crab was a huge hit.  I continued the birthday tradition I set during my first visit two years ago by treating myself after the play to a heavenly sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream, my self-proclaimed birthday cake without the candles.  It was a little bittersweet – both the pudding cake and the fact that I was celebrating alone, but I know how lucky I was to even be there and so I was grateful.

Set of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" inside the RSC

Set of “Two Gentlemen of Verona” inside the RSC

The world's best sticky toffee pudding.

The world’s best sticky toffee pudding.

The next morning – Sunday and my actual birthday – I set out early to catch the train to London for my last three days in England.  I was sad to leave Stratford-upon-Avon but I will be back again someday, of that I’m sure.  I’d actually really love to be there during Christmas one year, I hear it’s even more beautiful during the holidays, if that’s possible.  London is only a two-hour train ride south of Stratford, but it’s a whole other world unto itself, which is why I’ll save the details of those days for my last Tour de England post.  Stay tuned and thanks for reading!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Tour de England 2014 – Week 1: Windsor, Surrey, Bath

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 “I dare meet Surrey in a wilderness…” ~William Shakespeare (Richard II, IV, i)

I’m in tea-and-scone withdrawal as I write this, having recently returned from a wonderful, exhausting, memorable three-week solo vacation to England.  I organized my trip around another fantastic opportunity to see the Tour de France, with the rare occasion of the three-week race kicking off in the beautiful Yorkshire region of the UK (before then heading back to France).  Before too much time passes, I wanted to write down the details of my trip in an anglophile account of my own personal Tour de England.

Tour de England 2014

Tour de England 2014

(Disclaimer: Tour de England posts shall be longer than my usual rantings, there’s a lot to cover!)

This is post 1 of 3, and the series will cover my itinerary as follows:  Week 1- Windsor, Surrey & Bath; Week 2 – Leeds, York & the Tour de France; Week 3 – Shakespeare Country & London.

When I went to England last time in 2012 for the World Shakespeare Festival, just prior to the 2012 London Olympics, I stayed for 9 nights/10 days, which sped by in the blink of an eye.  I told myself then that I wanted to go back to England for a longer amount of time, to see more of the country than I had before, and to go at a time when the rest of the entire world wasn’t there at the same time (like they were for the very-crowded Olympics).

Because I was able to use my frequent flier miles to get a free airline ticket this time (well, $192 in taxes & fees which is pretty much a free ticket to London in peak July), I was able to budget to stay a little more than double the time of my last trip.  Three weeks is a very long vacation, I discovered, both in terms of time and expense.  I think it may be longest “real” vacation I’ve ever taken, and if I had to do it over I’d probably decrease it by just a few days – maybe.  But I realize how lucky I was to be able to even go on this trip at all, so I’m not complaining!

(The price I paid for that “free” ticket was unfortunately the smallest, most cramped economy seat I’ve ever been in, on a Virgin Atlantic flight, setting very close to a brand-new college graduate on a celebration trip to Europe who was on his ways to run with the bulls in Spain but who smelled like he’d already done so.  The service on Virgin was also unfortunately really bad, so I won’t be flying that airline again unless by some miracle I have a first-class fold-down.)

I wasn’t able to sleep at all on the flight over, so by the time I got to London Heathrow I was already pretty tired.  I’ve always heard though that the best way to combat jet lag is to not go to bed when you get there from an overnight flight – that you should stay up the rest of the day and then go to bed at the new-country time.  Trouble is that means you’ve been up about 36 hours straight by that time.  That didn’t work out for me too well on my 2012 trip when I spent my first day on a blurry trip to Stonehenge, and it didn’t work out this time either so I didn’t learn my lesson apparently.

My plan this trip was to head directly from the airport to Windsor via bus, drop my bags at my B&B, then head to Windsor Castle to walk off the jet lag on a transitional day.  The first part of that plan went well, and after a short 30-minute bus trip west of Heathrow, I was at the Castle by 10:00 AM.  Because I was traveling alone and not part of one of the huge bus groups snaking around the block, I was told to bypass the lines & go right in.  I immediately caught a warder-led tour of the grounds and I was the only one to show up to the meeting point, so I got my own personal tour which was very nice.

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However, by this time as I wandered around the rest of the castle grounds on my own, I started to feel not-great.  I hadn’t had anything to eat in a while, I know I was dehydrated, but mostly I was just sleep-deprived.  As I walked through an archives exhibit in one of the castle towers, I started to feel very lightheaded and fuzzy, spacey.  I sat down for a while, but after only two hours I decided to go back to the B&B.  It was unfortunate, since it cost $32 to get into the Castle (which I think it pretty pricey for what you actually have access to , which is not much, including a very underwhelming Henry VIII tomb), but jet lag seemed to be hitting me much worse this trip than the past few times over the ocean.

I succumbed to the sleepiness, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a better nap than I did that afternoon at that B&B – in a second floor room with the window open, a cool British breeze blowing in, overlooking the sights and sounds of a cricket practice field session.  I felt much better a few hours later, good enough to venture out to a pub down the street for some dinner and then a walk around the neighborhood, including down by the riverside.  I followed that same river walking path the next morning as I ventured back into the town; Windsor is actually a nice little town, overshadowed by the Castle of course but with some other quaint aspects too.

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A floating flower/plant canal boat shop! (In Windsor)

After a relaxing river cruise through the waters of Windsor and a stop at a coffee shop with a castle view, I got on the train for my next destination: Surrey.  Surrey is a county in southern England, just slightly southwest of the greater London area.  It’s very popular with London commuters for its proximity, and is said to have the highest percentage of millionaires who live there over any other county in England (and therefore the highest property values outside of London proper).  It’s also the most wooded county in the country, with almost a quarter of its land covered by forests, heaths & woodlands, which make it a very beautiful place.

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Surrey County, England

Surrey google map

Surrey County map – my base was Godalming

Many of you reading this may have never heard of Surrey, or the town of Godalming, which was my base for 3 days while visiting the county.  When looking at the map above, you won’t see any world-famous tourist towns within those county lines (although true fans of ‘The Office’ will notice Slough, hometown of the original British series).  So why was this region on my itinerary?  It was actually perhaps the part of my trip I was looking forward to the most, as I was on a genealogical quest to explore the part of England from where my family surname originated.

Through some web research several months earlier,  I’d found a man who is a genealogical and historical researcher in his spare time and maintains the British website for that research pertaining to our common family name.  I reached out to Martin to let him know I’d like to visit the area during my trip to see the land of my ancestors, and he graciously offered to be my tour guide for a day.

And what a day!  Martin drove down from Woking to pick me up from my B&B and we set off as new-found long-lost cousins; over the next several hours we drove through lush Surrey countryside and impossibly perfect English towns.  We stopped in six different locations to view some of the earliest existing tombs and graves of our family ancestors (at incredibly ancient churches in Thursley & Lynchmere that date back to Saxon times, that’s 450-800 AD people), peek through fences at some of the original property sites and homes of the earliest family members, and my favorite: visiting the actual site of the spring well pond after which our family is named.  The pond (located next to the petite hamlet of Bowlhead Green) only fills during the winter, so I was actually able to stand in the middle of the dry spring well bed and think of what it was like to live there almost 800 years ago (yes you read that right – the first recorded mention of our family name was in the year 1235!).  I like to imagine a hardworking agricultural laborer taking a break from his work for a nearby estate owner, relaxing by the welcoming banks of this still, clear, well-spring in the shady glade, and deciding to make a fresh start with his family by forming a new name for all of them.

(By the way, my Marvel-crazy nephews will love finding out that the small village of our ancestors, Thursley, draws its name from Old English Þunres lēah meaning lea of the god Thunor or Thor [in his northern guise], and was probably a site where he was worshipped).

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Saxon-era church in Thursley & tombs of some of our earliest family ancestors

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It was a fantastic memory-making day with my walking-history-book guide Martin, and I was very appreciative that he was willing to share his research with me and drive me around his beautiful Surrey lands.  After our visit Martin began a new quest to enlist the help of nearby residents in restoring and rebuilding the pond to its former glory days, which gives me a great reason to return one day and sit by the banks of our namesake’s nature retreat.  I feel as if I’ve made a very real connection to England now, both in terms of existing family members (distant though they may be) and historical links to the land to which I’ve always felt drawn.

I spent the other two days of my time in Surrey exploring the towns of Godalming and Guildford.  I walked the town streets, perused the street market stalls, and strolled along the river paths and through castle gardens.  I talked to locals about what it was like to live in this area (and learned what a Scotch Egg is).  I attended a play in Guildford called “The Other Shakespeare,” about the Bard’s wife Anne Hathaway and her reaction to being left by him for much of their married life.  My gracious B&B owners invited me to accompany them one night to a special exhibit at the Watts Gallery, which was amazing; before this trip I’m embarrassed to say I’d never even heard of the artist George Frederick Watts, but I’m definitely a fan now of his gargantuan sculptures and evocative paintings. (The exhibit by the way was about his young wife Ellen Terry, one of the earliest Shakespearean star actresses in silent films.)

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The town church of Godalming; perhaps my favorite picture of my whole trip that I took peeking through the garden roses.

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Guildford castle grounds

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Godalming’s famous “Pepper Pot.” (By the way, Godalming was the first city in the world to install a municipal electricity supply!)

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My time in Surrey was definitely the most meaningful segment of my entire journey.  I’m so glad I got off the beaten path and chose to take the non-tourist road less traveled.  I was sad to leave Surrey for my next stop of Bath, but…I LOVED BATH!

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  • That wasn’t my first reaction.  In fact, the afternoon I arrived in Bath and walked around the city to gain my bearings, I thought “Ugh, every building looks EXACTLY the same, how boring.”  But then I saw the gothic Bath Abbey, and Pultney Bridge over the river, and the buildings of the Roman Baths…and then on a fantastic free walking tour the next day, the famous Circus and Royal Crescent buildings, the Assembly Rooms where Jane Austen danced & socialized…and the beauty of the city really began to grow on me.  Every building (by law) is indeed built out of the same famous Bath sand-colored stone, but the uniformity and symmetry and Georgian architecture is actually quite mesmerizing after a while.

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I really enjoyed the tour of Bath Abbey, where I climbed the 200+ steps to the windy rooftop and peered out at the sand-colored city below.  I chose to explore the Roman Baths by torchlight at dusk, once the crowds had died down, and was struck by the history and significance of the structures surrounding the waters (and yes I drank some of the sulfuric pump water, you have to try it at least once).  I regularly exercised my Bath-given right to daily afternoon tea and scones, the best of which were at the Jane Austen Centre Regency Tea Room.  I popped in to the Tallulah Rose Flower School to introduce myself as a longtime Twitter follower.  And after exploring the stately Holburn Museum and adjoining garden grounds at one end of the city, I walked the long way back to my B&B through real (non-tourist area) neighborhoods, which I like to do whenever possible in order to see what’s on the other side of the curtain.

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Oh and I practically brushed shoulders with actual royalty in Bath: Prince Edward was at Bath Abbey the same day I was to oversee the university graduation there in his role as chancellor, I saw him walk out at the front of the procession; and then he was apparently just a few minutes behind me at the Baths that evening (I was told when I bought my ticket not to mind the police dogs and bodyguards inspecting the site in advance).

I would definitely go back to Bath, and would like to see some of the surrounding countryside next time, which is supposed to be breathtaking.  I’m really glad I budgeted three days there and that I gave it a good chance – next time I may even splurge to swim in the healing bath waters.

Stay tuned for the next post when I cover Leeds, York & the Tour de France kickoff in England!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

 

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