Mike is on a business trip to Minnesota this week, and you would think that would give me so much free time to write blog posts, but apparently not since I’m only just starting on this one. 😉 Part of the problem is that Mike and I joined a gym right before he left for his business trip, so I’ve been hanging out there a lot in the evenings. I’ve already taken two spin classes and a barre class, and they are so much fun! Their treadmills are awesome and have a cool feature where you can “run” on various trails around the world. Basically you pick your speed, and the incline is dependent on the incline of the trail you’ve chosen. The LCD screen on the treadmill shows all of the scenery around you as you run. SO cool! But a little addictive. I’ve “run” in New Zealand, Germany, Australia, and California this week. Mike says it’s cheaper than vacations, but given how beautiful the scenery in the LCD screens looks I think it might just make me want to take more trips. 😉
All right… back to our trip! I still have lots of stuff to talk about!
On Monday Mike and I got up early and had breakfast, but Mike had a small headache, so he decided to rest for half an hour or so. I took the opportunity to check out the workout room at the hotel. Very nice! There was a nice selection of treadmills, ellipticals, and free weights. The treadmills faced windows that looked out towards Westminster Abbey, so it was even a little scenic. I had a little difficulty figuring out what speed I should be using on the treadmill. I’m so accustomed to measuring my running in mph that km/hr was a challenge. I was trying to mentally multiply my typical mph pace by 1.61 in my head to get km/hr, and was failing miserably until I remembered that I know my 5k and 10k times. Dividing my 10k pace by 10 and just operating off of the km/hr pace was much easier than trying to convert to miles. (I realize that as an engineer, I should be able to do decimal multiplications in my head. At least roughly. And I could, back before they invented calculators. Since then calculators have done the bulk of my complex multiplications. 😉 )
After my run Mike and I got ready to head out. We were determined to see Westminster Abbey since we had been thwarted in our plans to see it on Saturday and on Sunday. After that we were open to ideas. Mike was still dragging a little, but we stopped at Pret a Manger (our favorite coffee shop/deli in London), and a latte perked Mike up considerably. Both Mike and I loved all of the organic, fresh, local food sold at Pret a Manger. Latte and Americano in hand, Mike and I started our short walk to Westminster Abbey. We got a good look at the Houses of Parliament as we passed.
And wow… there was a loooong line at Westminster Abbey! Is Westminster Abbey always busy… even on a random Monday morning?? We stood in line for about half an hour and then the line moved forward enough for us to get in. There’s no photography allowed in Westminster Abbey, so if you want to see the inside you’ll actually have to go to London. (I’m kidding… their website has some pretty good pictures!). Stepping inside was like stepping into another era. It was obviously a cathedral (and even still an active one!) There were candles lit everywhere, mostly I think because it was the week leading up to Easter Sunday. (How do Mike and I always manage to plan our trips unknowingly around holidays? Last year was Carnevale, this year was Easter.)
Everything inside the cathedral was made of stone and stained glass. When we entered we were in a high-ceilinged entryway (which we later found was called the Nave) and were directed to our right where we walked down a long stone corridor with coffins and memorials cramming the walls on both sides. We passed Sir Isaac Newton’s tomb and the burying places of David Livingstone and Charles Darwin, among many, many other people. Once we had passed the long corridor of tombs and memorials we were within the big church itself which contained many smaller chapels and offshoot rooms that contained royal coffins. We saw coffins of so many kings and queens that I completely lost track of who was who. Undoubtedly a student of English history would have been better able to appreciate everything we saw. A few highlights, though…
Poet’s Corner. Poet’s Corner is the burying place of many poets, including Tennyson, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Robert Browning. There are also many other poets who have memorials there although they are buried elsewhere. It’s a very quiet, peaceful area, and the floor is full of memorial tiles to various writers.
The Quire. i.e. The Choir. Pretty majestic! View the link for pictures since we weren’t allowed to take any!
The Lady Chapel. Built in the 1500’s by Henry VII, it’s a very majestic high-ceilinged chapel within the Abbey which included the tombs of Elizabeth I, her sister Mary I, Henry VII, and his wife Elizabeth of York.
All in all, the cathedral was just beautiful and SUCH a step backwards in time! When we emerged from the dark, stone cathedral into the bright sunshine outside it took a few moments of blinking to reorient ourselves. We still had several more hours left of the afternooon, so we decided to hop on the Underground and head towards Oxford and Regent streets (i.e. the shopping district!) to get a feel for British culture. Those streets also happened to be right next to the British National Museum which is amazingly FREE to enter (presumably for the same reasons that the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. is, although I’m not really clear why that’s free either). After transferring on the Subway on to the Picadilly line (we were becoming pros at knowing the different Subway lines, where they went, and what stations had transfers between the lines), we walked up the steps from the subway and found ourselves right near the British Museum. Perfect! 🙂
And, unlike Westminster Abbey, there were no picture restrictions. That was good, because our fingers were itching to hit our camera buttons!
We discovered that the British National Museum has some amazing treasures from literally all over the world, I’m sure because Britain ruled so much of the world during the time when a lot of these treasures were unearthed. There were whole rooms devoted to Greece, Rome, Macedonia, Egypt, and other countries and cities. Similarly to the Smithsonian, there was just WAY too much to see. So we bought a small guidebook that pointed out some of the highlights, and we headed towards those.
My favorite things were undoubtedly the Rosetta Stone (see above!), an Aztec mask that I remember seeing a picture of in a history book when I was in grade school, and all of the Aztec artifacts in general (because I’d never seen anything Aztec before!).
The above mask is a serious mask. A very serious mask. It is made from a human skull lined with deer hide. It even contains human teeth. The Aztecs didn’t mess around when they create masks.
The double-headed serpent mosaic made of turquoise was gorgeous! If you like serpents.
Mike was a fan of Hoa Hakananai… a Polynesian statue. Apparently he weighs four tons and his name means “Stolen or Hidden Friend”.
There was also a room FULL of clocks from throughout history!
And we both absolutely loved the mummies exhibit. Oh. My. Gosh.
Despite all of the Egyptian exhibits which Mike and I have somehow managed to see over the years, we had never seen anything like this. Real mummies, still wrapped up!
Tons of sarcophagi, mummified animals, and other crazy Egyptian artifacts!
This cat looks WAY too much like Piper!
All of this was probably excavated from Egypt by British archaeologists and shipped directly to England, since that seemed to be how things worked in those days. Despite everything being so interesting, we focused on the things from the guidebook that we really wanted to see since there was so much there!
We exited the museum feeling like we had soaked up so much culture from literally around the globe!
Once outside, we wandered down Oxford Street, talking about what we’d seen and browsing stores. It was surprising how many stores that were popular in Italy were also popular in London, including Desigual (I LOVE Desigual), United Colors of Benneton, and Mango. I almost bought a cute purse and dress in Desigual, but the exchange rate of USD to GBP is just ridiculous, so I would have been paying 1.5x what I would have paid for them in the U.S. So instead of buying them, I made a mental note of them, and then ordered them from Desigual as soon as I got back to the States and got them much more cheaply! 🙂 When we reached Regent Street, we turned down that, since my trusty London map that I’d bought the first day recommended both Oxford and Regent streets for shopping. By the time we’d finished wandering through stores and reached the Underground Station at the far end of Regent street, we were a little tired, but in a very happy, relaxed way. According to my map, we were only a few blocks from Trafalgar Square, so rather than take the Underground back, we decided to just walk to Trafalgar Square and then walk the rest of the way back to our hotel since it was such a wonderful, sunny twilight… so warm and relaxing! Trafalgar Square was beautiful!
Nelson’s Column in the middle was so tall! I loved the giant lion statues at each corner of Nelson’s Column in the middle of the square… gorgeous and with such expressive stone faces!
I wasn’t entirely clear on why there was a giant blue chicken statue there, but….
We discovered that the chicken was on a foundation called the Fourth Plinth which was empty for many years and now is the base for a rotating series of artwork. Currently, the artwork is a giant blue chicken. Interesting! 🙂
From there, we walked back to Westminster and accidentally ended up in front of the long driveway to Buckingham Palace on our way. It was beautiful! The walk to Westminster was relaxing and beautiful, especially with the sun setting, but by the time we reached the hotel again, we were hungry. We were getting to know the wait staff at the hotel restaurant since we had breakfast there each morning and had also eaten dinner there a couple of times, so we headed back there again! I got a huge plate of sauteed broccoli and peppers and soup, and Mike got a steak burger. We decided to make an early night of it, because we had one final day in England the following day and decided to be well-rested for it!
The next morning we woke up refreshed and ready to go! And we knew exactly where we were heading!
When we were originally planning our trip, we planned it for the week of April 10th specifically because that was the week we were able to get tickets to see this!
It’s the Downton Abbey Castle (i.e. Highclere Castle)! How exciting! 🙂 We have been watching every season faithfully almost since the beginning, and we were excited to see the castle where the show is filmed in real life! We bought our tickets far in advance online and then just organized our trip around those tickets. Why? Well, why not? If you’re going to England sometime, you may as well go when you get to see Highclere Castle. 🙂
We had originally planned to rent a car and drive out to Highclere Castle. However, that was before our decision the very first day that we were not interested in messing with London traffic. I had become a pro at figuring out public transportation, and frankly all my experience figuring out public transportation in Italy helped as well. We took the Circle Line on the Underground to Paddington Station. (Am I the only one who still knows about Paddington Bear?? Mike had never heard of him!) When we arrived at Paddington Station, there were little stuffed Paddington Bears in all the gift shops. SOOO cute! I wasted no time in educating Mike about Paddington Bear. After only two eye rolls, Mike and I located the train from Paddington to Newbury, which is the closest town to Highclere Castle and climbed aboard. (I had already bought our tickets online the night before and just printed them at the station.) Everything about Paddington Station reminded Mike and me strikingly of Roma Termini Station in Rome, from the ticket machines right down to the high arched ceiling full of skylights. According to my (super reliable?) website sources, there were always lots of taxis at Newbury Station waiting to take anxious Downton Abbey fans out to the castle. I hoped so, because it was a five mile walk otherwise. 😉 The train ride to Downtown wasn’t too long… an hour or so and there was lots of countryside (i.e. sheep) to look at as we rode. We passed through the Reading station, and I couldn’t help wondering if it was the one the Monopoly Reading Railroad was named after. (Afterwards I looked it up online, and nope, the Reading Railroad from Monopoly is located in Pennsylvania… significantly closer to home than London!) 🙂
When we got to Newbury, Mike and I hopped off the train. The Newbury station was much more of a country station than a city station, so it was very small. More the size of the Lake Como train station than the Roma Termini train station. We walked out front and saw that, oh joy! There was indeed a whole line of taxis. Mike and I went up to the first one and got in. The cab driver was super friendly and we talked the entire 15 minute ride to Highclere Castle. He started out by telling us he was disappointed to be working when it was so beautiful out. We asked him what he’d rather be doing, and it turns out that he and his brother are avid golfers. They also own their own cab company. So when no one is hiring cabs, they get to go out and play golf. I apologized profusely for wrecking his golfing plans (while Mike rolled his eyes at me), but Jamie shook his head. “Nah,” he said. “I love talkin’ to people and love drivin’ around. I don’t mind working at all. There’ll be other nice days to golf.” His accent was distinctly rural… different from the very precise London accents we’d been hearing. I loved it. We asked him about his background, and he grew up in Newbury, near Highclere Castle. He said it was great for his business that Highclere was becoming such a tourist attraction because except for that trip, it was tougher to find customers. There is a Vodaphone plant near Newbury (Vodaphone is basically the Verizon or ATT&T of Europe. Their website even looks like Verizon’s to me.), and Jamie said that previously he was able to get business by driving employees to and from Vodaphone. Now, however, Vodaphone has instituted their own bus system for bussing employees to work, which is making things pretty tough for the cab drivers in the area. We also talked sports, and discovered that Jamie is a passionate Liverpool football (soccer) fan. All in all, we enjoyed our time with him immensely, and he gave us his card (one of his special laminated ones, which I still have!) so that we could call him at the end of our visit to take us back to Newbury Station. Huge shout-out to super-friendly Jamie and his H&H cab company! 🙂
As we walked up the winding driveway to Highclere Castle we saw sheep on every single side. Sheep… everywhere. We must have seen thousands of sheep during our trip. It was pretty insane. England and Ireland love their sheep! They all looked woolly and contented, basking in the beautiful sunshine.
Everyone is probably going to give a collective groan here, but Highclere Castle didn’t allow you to take pictures inside either, so we were only able to take pictures of the outside. Why are all of these people against cameras?? Oh well… if you want to see inside you can always watch the show! 🙂
We toured some of the gardens and grounds first… they were beautifully kept up!
The grounds were huge! We learned from Jamie that all of the sheep surrounding the estate were actually part of the estate. The real-life owners of Highclere Castle, the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, are not unlike the Grantham family of the Downton Abbey. They have a huge estate, which still contains livestock, but they have adapted to the modern world as well and are supplementing their income with tours of the castle and, of course, allowing a hit TV show to be filmed there!
We also discovered that there is an Egyptian Exhibit at Highclere Castle (??). We didn’t know this originally, but 100 years ago when the 5th Earl of Carnarvon was presiding over Highclere Castle and the surrounding estate, he collaborated with the archaelogist Howard Carter and together they discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun (King Tut) in 1922. So the previous day we had gotten to see mummies, and now we got to see artifacts from King Tut’s Tomb. And we also saw the King Tut exhibit when it went through Seattle last year. And we actually saw some Egyptian artifacts in one of the Roman museums. As Mike put it, either we are nearing the point where we’ve seen every Egyptian artifact outside of Egypt that there is to see, or else the Egyptians made a LOT of artifacts! 🙂 Regardless, everything was beautiful! The 5th Earl was very progressive in his thinking, and in addition to his interest in archaeology he also was very interested in medicine and was also one of the first motor car drivers in England (I guess he wouldn’t have actually needed Branson.) 🙂
The house itself was gorgeous! We got to tour a lot of the rooms used in show including Lady Grantham’s bedroom, Lord Grantham’s office, the parlour, and the giant dining room. Everything was beautiful! Walking up the winding staircase (shown many times in the TV show) was very cool! And looking down on the main floor over the upstairs bannisters was gorgeous! You can see pictures of some of the things we saw in the Highclere picture gallery…. or you can watch the show. 🙂 The rooms still have period-specific furniture in them… I honestly don’t know how that works. Do the current Earl of Carnarvon and his family actually use all of that old furniture? Or is it only brought out during tours? I asked one of the tour guides about that, and she assured us that we weren’t seeing the entire castle. We were only seeing certain wings. So the family was all at home, but presumably in their own more modern quarters in other parts of the castle. Wow. It seemed really big, but I guess there were still lots of parts we didn’t even see!
All in all, it was a very relaxing and fun experience!
And, of course, Mike and I had to get our picture taken with the castle behind us. 🙂
I called Jamie (after a little confusion figuring out how to call a British number from my U.S. phone. Basically you don’t dial the +44 country code for Britain. At least not on an iPhone. It figures all that out. You just type the primary number.), and he came to pick us up promptly. We chatted all the way back to Newbury, and he said it was a shame that we had to go back to London right away because Newbury was a very pretty town. He was obviously proud to live there, and we didn’t have any other plans for the rest of the afternoon (our return train tickets were good for any trains departing that day), so we decided to hang around Newbury for a couple of hours.
It really was a charming rural English town!
We had a late lunch at a Pret a Manger in Newbury… it was so beautiful outside and there were so many people out and about in the downtown shopping area! There was a street musician playing Pink Floyd songs right outside of Pret a Manger, and we loved listening to him!
Then we made the short hike back to Newbury Station and made the trek back to London.
Although it had been an absolutely beautiful couple of days, Tuesday night was chilly and windy. We decided we wanted to go somewhere other than the hotel for dinner (since we were entirely too familiar with their menu by that point). 🙂 So, despite the cold, we ventured out several blocks to Quirinale. It was an excellent choice! It was actually in a well-lit basement, so you descended down a full flight of stairs to get to it from the street level. The food was very good, and it was a charming atmosphere. The only thing that was a little strange is that they had gorgeous white roses everywhere. That was nice, but the mix of the smell of the roses combined with the smell of the Italian food was a little bewildering and overwhelming to our noses.
By the time we had walked home from Quirinale, we were exhausted. And we had to get a good night’s sleep, because the next day we were leaving England and heading to Ireland! More info on our journey later… this post is already ridiculously long. 🙂
I hope everyone has a good weekend! I’m picking Mike up from the airport tomorrow… Piper and I will be glad to have him home. A little girl time for Piper and me is fine occasionally, but we’re ready for him to come back. 🙂