Sunday, September 2, 2018

Back from a Trip of a Lifetime

If you noticed I did not post last weekend, so this weekend I will make up for it with an explanation - and a bit of a diversion from what I normally write about in this space.

I took a one-week vacation and my far better half and I jetted off to England for a six-day tour of the English countryside, ending up in London for the final night prior to the return home.  So this week a bit of a travelogue and collected thoughts from the week away.

It all began last February when Sophie, a devoted WNED watcher and supporter, saw an ad for a tour in August entitled To The Manor Born.  Basically, you would tour some of the sites and locations for some of her - and my - favourite British television shows we watch regularly on PBS.  The tour was guided, of course, and not inexpensive.  Airfare, I might add, was not included.  Sophie said at dinner one night she wanted to go - whether I wanted to or not!

Well faced with a dilemma like that, I knew the only correct answer was "Yes, dear", meaning of course I would accompany her on the tour.  Truth be told, I have wanted to get back to the U.K. for some time now, as my first trip was 41 years ago and the last one 28 years ago.  In other words, two generations and one generation ago respectively.

It took some stick-handling to get an unscheduled week off from work at a time when I normally can't get time off, but it all somehow came together and after a lot of online booking, searching, booking some more and checking, we were all set to go.

First off, let me say international travel is not my friend.  I find the flights too long and since we're flying economy, there is simply not a lot of room for stretching out hours on end.  You really are crammed in like sardines these days.  Add to that a very long lineup for both checking in and clearing security at Pearson in Toronto and you are already feeling tired and stressed out before you even leave the ground.

An overnight flight is not my favourite, but at least I timed it right so we arrived at our first hotel in Windsor, just outside of London, in time to simply walk in, grab our room key and go for a well-deserved rest.

We added an extra day on to the front of the tour so as to relax and rest up before hitting the road, and it certainly proved to be the right plan.  The first night there, Sunday, we were both too tired to do much more than take a walk around the area and enjoy a quiet dinner in the hotel dining room.

Those first two nights were spent at the splendid Castle Hotel Windsor, situated right in the heart of town with a view from our hotel room of Windsor Castle across the way.  In every way, the hotel is exquisite and I highly recommend it when you are in Windsor.  We definitely plan to return again in the future.

Monday the tour group met and we basically had the day to explore Windsor and tour Windsor Castle before meeting for a group dinner at the hotel that night.  We discovered far too many shops to explore in town, and even discovered a new pub that had opened just a few months ago described as an 'art bar.'  Art by local artists was on display and all for sale, and the Scottish theme of the pub was reflected in the music and the menu.  I ordered the vegetarian haggis, actually, and it was far better than the real thing, in my estimation.

The Tuesday morning we embarked on the first part of our road tour, stopping late morning at Highclere Castle, the setting for the phenomenally successful Downton Abbey.  As the bus made its way down the long, winding drive, the tour guide wisely popped the Downton Abbey soundtrack CD into the system and with the theme from the series filling our ears, we approached the castle.

Sophie was very emotional at the site of it, as she is totally into the entire series.  Because of the time it aired on Sunday nights I usually didn't get to see many episodes so I was not quite as into it as she was, until we got inside.

The first thing you notice upon arriving is aside from the rolling countryside and distant gardens, there is no visible vegetation anywhere surrounding the castle.  It is all simply gravel, which seems rather barren.  The second thing you discover is no picture taking is allowed inside the castle.

Still, the tour is well worth it, and each room used in the show has a large, full-colour picture depicting a scene from the series shot in that particular room.  But you will also notice, as I did, the amount of wear and tear the carpets are experiencing with all those visitors traipsing through every day.  They are positively threadbare in spots, and together with some rough spots on the walls and some peeling paint on parts of the ceiling, you can see the grand old lady is still in need of repair after all this time.

The 8th Earl of Carnarvon and his wife are the present occupants of the castle, yet they live there only part-time now.  Most of their time is spent at a cottage elsewhere on the grounds and the castle is for all intents and purposes a museum of sorts.  But what a magnificent museum!

Later in the afternoon we departed for the city of Bath, described as the second most-visited tourist destination in England after London.  Upon arrival it was easy to see why.  Bath, famous for the ancient Roman Baths in the centre of town, is equally famous for the music in every public square in town pretty much all the time.

Walking extensively both that evening and in the morning before departing, Sophie and I were amazed by the sights and sounds of Bath, from the Bath Abbey where Chorus Niagara sang several years ago to Number One Royal Crescent, where a tour reveals how fashionable Georgian society lived.

Our night in Bath was spent at the Abbey Hotel, a compact art-inspired hotel in the centre of town with a bar area featuring wine glasses suspended from the ceiling.  While the room was nice, it was a bit of a let down from the clean elegance of the Castle Hotel Windsor, but it was nicely appointed and since we were only there one night it was not a big problem.

Prior to leaving the next morning, following our walk around town Sophie stopped back into the hotel  to use the main floor women's washroom off the lobby, and after a rather lengthy period inside, she came out and dragged me in to see the room.  Thankfully we were alone at the time, but it was a picture of elegance and grace with a view outside that was quite stunning.  Yes, there is certainly a great divide between mens and women's washrooms the world over it seems...

Leaving Bath Wednesday morning with great reluctance, Sophie and I decided we simply have to return again some day as there is simply so much more to see in the city.  We travelled first to Cricket St. Thomas, an elegant Regency mansion built c1820 and surrounded by spectacular gardens and even a lawn bowling green.

The mansion was chosen by the BBC as the location for the popular British sitcom To The Manor Born several years ago, and today is a popular country house hotel.  We enjoyed a cream tea and tour of the gardens during our mid-day visit there.

Later in the afternoon it was off to Devon and our hotel for the next two nights, Boringdon Hall.  This manor house hotel features dramatic Elizabethan architecture complete with imposing stone towers, secret archways and curious arrow slits that hint at the hotel's rich history.

Boringdon Hall was a pleasure to stay at, with extremely comfortable accommodation in the more modern wing and exceptional dining both nights we were there.  There is also a newer spa wing added on not too many years ago.

Thursday morning we departed for what was for Sophie and I perhaps the highlight of the entire tour, a day-long visit to the Cornish coast and a tour of the seaside village of Port Isaac, used for many years as the setting for the popular TV show Doc Martin.  Known as Port Wenn in the show, Port Isaac is hilly with narrow streets and quaint little cottages you can rent much of the year.

In fact, most of the inhabitants in town are people renting those cottages.  Our tour guide is one of only about 25 people who actually live in the town now, and on his street he says he is the only permanent resident.

The guide took us around to most of the outside settings for all the familiar locations in the show, from Doc Martens house (actually owned by people in Australia, we're told) to the iconic apothecary in town which is actually a fudge and gift shop the rest of the year.  All of the indoor scenes for the show are shot in a barn not far from Port Isaac, so only the outdoor filming is actually done in town.  The next season will start shooting next May, I'm told.

The weather was cool and windy for our visit there and it threatened rain most of the day, which seemed appropriate given the location, but it is easy to see why the Cornish coastline can be an unforgiving one for those not too careful about where they go.

Upon returning to Boringdon Hall for our second night, we were treated to a falconry demonstration by one of the locals, an eccentric gentleman with a large owl by the name of Merlin, several hawks and lots of stories about local lore.

The Friday morning we left Boringdon hall, again with much reluctance, for a mid-day visit to The Greenway Estate in Devon, the summertime home for Agatha Christie and her second husband.  It is a large historic estate with sprawling grounds used as the setting for Christie's Dead Man Walking, starring of course her signature detective Hercule Poirot.  You can take pictures without flash in the home, and the tour reveals a grand yet still modest lifestyle enjoyed by Dame Agatha in her final years.  I couldn't help but notice a picture in one of the rooms of Slipper, the final cat to reside at The Greenway Estate with her.

After lunch at the estate we departed for Sidmouth, a charming seaside town, although last weekend being a bank holiday in England it was decided we should forego the crowds of Sidmouth for the charms of Torquay, part of what is referred to as the English Riviera.  Here, we passed by the Grand Hotel on our way into town, where Agatha and her husband spent their honeymoon, apparently.

The weather had turned rather cloudy and windy while there, with a threat of rain, but we did explore the boardwalk a bit and the collection of amusements, including a lovely carousel not unlike what we have here in Port Dalhousie.  Eventually we ducked into a local cafe for a light bite before rejoining our tour group for the final leg of the tour that day.

We hit a lot of holiday traffic on that stretch, so our arrival at our hotel for the night, Tortworth Court was later than expected.  But once we arrived, our collective jaws dropped.  Tortworth Court is huge, with over 200 stately rooms in an historic setting that just screams history.  There was a wedding underway that evening so lots to see as we wandered the estate prior to dinner and afterwards.  The room was beautiful with every nicety you could imagine.

The Saturday morning, our final full day on the tour, we departed for Hampton Court Palace on our way in to London for the final night.  Hampton Court Palace was not originally intended as a royal residence and in fact it isn't now, either.  It was built by Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, minister of King Henry VIII and appropriated by the king when Wolsey failed to bring about the king's divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

The grounds are sprawling, with gardens to welcome you first as you make your way to the palace itself.  The tour takes you through the palace, courtyard and art gallery, so there is a lot to see while there.  There was also a food festival on the grounds that day, so crowds were particularly heavy while we were there.  But it was certainly worth stopping for!

Finally we departed late afternoon for London, a city I first visited in 1977 and last in 1990.  It is still the same multicultural, dynamic city as always, but you cannot escape the tension and sense of urgency while there given the world events of the age we live in.

Our final hotel stay was at the strikingly beautiful Amba Hotel, Charing Cross, adjacent to Charing Cross rail station and close to just about everything you want to see in London.  The reinvention of the old Charing Cross hotel is nothing short of spectacular, although I found the lighting system in our particular room rather troublesome.

Another wedding in that hotel Saturday night so it was again a busy place, but the staff is amazing there, helpful in the extreme.  For our final group dinner together we left the hotel, in fact, and walked a few blocks to a French restaurant near The Strand for a lovely late-evening dinner.

Upon returning to the Amba hotel, we found the large winding staircase in the main lobby was festooned with candles in glass holders along most steps to light your way up or down in the evening.  It was a spectacular display of attention to detail at this historic yet modern hotel.

After breakfast on the Sunday morning I left for a walk around town to get some pictures of familiar places I had visited in the past such as Trafalgar Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, both just steps away from our hotel.  It was a cool, grey day in London, and the rain started falling just as I was concluding my walk.  Upon checkout shortly afterwards the rain was pouring down as our car picked us up for the trip to Heathrow airport.

It was great to be back in such a vibrant city again if even just for one night.  I must return again!

The return home was again an adventure, but for different reasons this time.  We were early enough to avoid the lineups we experienced on the way over, but upon our arrival in Toronto late in the afternoon, it proved to be all for naught as my luggage didn't make the flight although Sophie's did.  Amazingly and without logic, her bag was on our flight but mine was on the next flight to Toronto three hours later!

After a very long wait in Toronto for a bag that was still in the air, we left for our car to come home, and Air Canada, to their credit, delivered my bag directly to the house around noon on Monday.  No idea why this happened and it was a first for me, but it made for an rather interesting end to the week away.

So there you have it.  A week full of memories, and a strong desire to return and experience some of the locations again.

The tour operator, Transcendent Travel, is first-rate and treated us all very well.  Tour director Andrew Lennard is knowledgeable and things of just about every detail.  It was an unforgettable experience being on the tour with Sophie and I don't regret it for a moment.

Have a great weekend!

September 2nd, 2018.

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