Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Christmas in London Town

Christmas Decorations off Regent Street
There‘s no better place for the holidays than with family. But some years don’t work out like that and this was one of those years. Things change. Children grow. They move. We move. Duty calls.

A few years ago I was that woman who had 6 fully decorated Christmas trees in her home. I would have baked at least 35 dozen cookies along with cakes, breads and huge pans of Chex Mix. Gifts would be piled three-deep with any assortment of bags, tags and baubles.

This year? I put holiday covers on a few pillows and called it a day. No tree and no lights, no wrapping paper, ribbons or bows. I baked a scant three dozen cookies and Chex Mix was done in half-batches because my oven’s so small.

Behold! My complete 2015 holiday decorating: four new pillow covers
Clearly, this would not play out as a traditional Christmas. So if it was going to be different, why not go whole hog?
I booked a room in central London where we stayed four days and let the good folks at Crowne Plaza do the decorating for me. They had a blaze going in the lobby fireplace, a beautiful tree, and lovely holiday trim throughout. Ta-da.

Christmas Eve: In the morning we walked to Smithfield Market to watch Hart Butcher’s annual auction. Despite the drizzle, there was a crush of people waving 20-pound notes for a chance to buy beef tenderloin or pork roast for Christmas dinner. We didn’t linger long enough to see if there was a goose up for bid.  (But I like to think there was.)

Bidding on their Christmas dinner at Hart's Butcher's, a Christmas Eve tradition.
Later in the day we strolled along Fleet Street, home to England’s many journalists, then over to St. Paul’s Cathedral and the London Exchange, where Ebenezer Scrooge often conducted business.
The London Exchange

Me in front of St Paul's Cathedral. The queue of people on the left is the beginning
of a very long line to get into the 4:00 p.m. Christmas Carol service.
We arrived too late, despite waiting in line for 15 minutes.
Christmas Day: After breakfast we planned a long, quiet walk along the Thames then across Tower Bridge. I expected there to be only a few of us out, yet what to my wondering eyes should appear but others just like us who do this each year! I didn’t know until now, but there are hundreds – possibly thousands – of families who don’t celebrate a traditional Christmas, who go somewhere or do something different.

On Tower Bridge in my Christmas cap
In the London Bridge City Christmas Market, shuttered up in honor of the day
Boxing Day: The day after Christmas, so named because traditionally this was the day servants and tradesmen would receive gifts called a 'Christmas Box' from their masters. But for us? More walking around the city during the day then to Kew Gardens in the evening for a mile-long Christmas trail of decorations.
This handsome fellow was outside Covent Gardens

Make-no-mistake Mistletoe inside Covent Gardens
Along the Christmas Trail at Kew Gardens

Along the Christmas Trail at Kew Gardens

For me, unexpectedly, Christmas was delightful. Since I wasn’t spending the holidays with all my sweet little sugarplums back home, I’m glad I did something out of the ordinary, something to keep my mind off what I might be missing. With apologies to Stephen Stills, if you can’t be in the place you love, love the place you’re in.

But I’d still like a full batch of Chex Mix.

For more pictures of our London Christmas, click here, please.


A Lesson on Being Cheap - From a plaque on the Thames River.

"Legend suggests that before the construction of London Bridge in the 10th century a ferry existed here. Ferrying passengers across the River Thames was a lucrative trade. John Overs who, with his watermen and apprentices, kept the 'traverse ferrie over the Thames', made such a good living that he was able to acquire a considerable estate on the south bank of the river.

John Overs, a notorious miser, devised a plan to save money. He would feign death believing that his family and servants would fast out of respect and thereby save a day's provisions. However, when he carried out the plan, the servants were so overjoyed at his death that they began to feast and make merry. In a rage the old man leapt out of bed to the horror of his servants, one of whom picked up a broken oar and 'thinking to kill the Devil at the first blow, actually struck out his brains.'

The ferryman's distressed daughter Mary sent for her lover, who in haste to claim the inheritance fell from his horse and broke his neck. Mary was so overcome by these misfortunes that she devoted her inheritance to founding a convent into which she retreated."

Did this old legend have any influence on Charles Dickens when he described people celebrating Scrooge's death? Perhaps.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Old York!

On the 800-year old wall one cool and clearing morn.
Since Thanksgiving isn't celebrated in the UK - and Rex had a couple days off - we headed north to York. Here's a ridiculously short history of the walled city based mostly on what we were able to see:

York is one of England’s oldest cities, with roots dating to the Roman occupation of 1st century A.D.  After the Romans returned home (or  were lost, as was the case with it’s 9th Legion), Saxons settled in York and fought on a regular basis with Vikings who were busy building their own settlement.

Next came the Normans in 1068, a mere two years after their official invasion southward in Hastings. William the Conqueror knew the value of this northern stronghold and built not one, but two castles in York to ensure its security. A couple centuries later York’s famous wall was erected around the city. Much of the wall remains to this day and visitors can walk the roughly 2 miles that still stand.  

Bad boys Guy Fawkes and Rex
York continued to thrive through the Wars of the Roses headed by York’s own King Edward IV and the signatory white rose (reminder: the House of York was pitted against the House of Lancaster with its red rose. After about 35 years of fighting, Tudor King Henry VII took the throne, brought peace to the kingdom and established a red and white rose – the Tudor rose. Clever, huh?)

After the Tudor reign, York may best be remembered as the birthplace of British bad-boy, Guy Fawkes, the fellow charged with planning to blow up Parliament in the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
About 100 years later, York became home to  notorious highwayman and horse thief, Dick Turpin, where he was forthwith tried, hanged and buried within the city walls.  Today, visitors to York can wend their way through museums, ancient ruins, modern pubs and an absolutely horrifying dungeon tour (someone in our group cried the first 15 minutes, she was so scared).

With its Dickensian feel, this is The Shambles, part of York's
shopping district. It is said to have been the inspiration for
Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter series.

The old streets of York inside the wall are still a happening place with their tiny shops and cozy restaurants. The cobblestones and tilted buildings may look familiar and for good reason. Part of the market district, called the Shambles, was said to be  used as the design for 'Diagon Alley' in the Harry Potter series.

Christmas Markets were already in full swing when we arrived and what says holiday spirit more than chocolate? Nothing, that’s what. York has a long history of chocolate-making and is home to the Chocolate Orange ball as well as the Kit Kit bar. Though surprisingly, does not claim the York peppermint patty, which isn’t readily available in any part of England.

Inside one of the many Chocolate Shops. Home to the Kit Kat bar
and Chocolate Orange, York has a long, lovely chocolate history.
Although there had always been evidence of Viking inhabitants in York, nothing compared with the discovery made in 1976. During an archeological dig scheduled to last 6 months, workers unearthed one of the most astounding finds in England – a full-blown Viking settlement dating back over 1,000 year. The 6-month dig stretched into 5 years and more than 800 artifacts – everything from hair combs to ice skates – revealed how the Vikings lived and worked, what they ate and how they died. Today the information, artifacts -- and even smells! - are housed in York's Jorvik Viking Centre. Oh, the smells.

For more pictures of our visit to England's northern city of York, please get your click on here.

And in case you're wondering where all this is on the map:

Clifford's Tower:
During the reign of Henry VIII and his newly-established Anglican Church, York remained predominantly Catholic. One Yorkshire country gentleman, Robert Aske was chosen by the his fellow Yorkshiremen to help lead a rebellion in 1536 called 'Pilgrimage of Grace.' Aske honorably held sway over more than 30,000 and marched them south toward London to declare Yorkshire’s grievances directly to their sovereign, King Henry. Upon meeting with Robert Aske, the king drafted a treaty with York, promised the people free elections as well as a parliament in York. However, within a year, conditions soured, suspicions renewed, and in the end, Robert Aske was arrested, paraded through the streets and hanged as a traitor at Clifford’s Tower in York. 
This was not the first time someone died here for their faith. A plaque at the base of the tower reads:
"On the night of 16 May 1090, some 150 Jews and Jewesses of York having sought protection in the Royal Castle on this site from a mob incited by Richard Malebisse and others chose to die at each others hands rather than renounce their faith."
We humans have a long and tragic history of  tormenting one another because of religious beliefs. Will we never learn?

Clifford's Tower where Catholic gentleman Robert Aske was hanged for his steadfast
religious faith. He was accused of treason by King Henry VIII. Some 500 years prior,
York's entire Jewish community was wiped out here.









Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Vienna, Austria

Vienna's Stately Opera House
Grüß Gott! And greetings from Vienna, Austria - home to the Hapsburg Empire, Mozart, Strauss, Klimt and more beauty than we could possibly see in three days.

But I'll be dipped if we didn't try.
We checked into our hotel Thursday evening where a complimentary Gugelhupf cake was served in the lobby (think small, light bundt cake). When we got to our room, there was a fresh carafe of water in our room with a note saying it came directly from the Alps via the aqueduct built by Emperor Franz Josef. And so set the tone for our next 72 hours.  

Now an art museum, the Belvedere Palace was
once home to Prince Eugene of Savoy.
Friday morning we walked to the Belvedere Palace. Once the summer home of Prince Eugene of Savoy, it's now an art gallery housing, among others, a wide array of Gustav Klimt paintings, including his famous gold "Kiss." 
In addition to the Van Goghs, the Rembrandts, and Danhausers,  there was also a startling exhibit of marble busts by F.X. Messerschmidt, called Character Heads. No photography was allowed in the exhibit rooms but if  you feel like seeing something quirky, click that link. I dare you.

Sigmund Freud's Waiting Room
From the Upper and Lower Belvedere wings we walked to the city center's Albertina Museum,  mainly to see the famous Edward Munch exhibit. From there (and after a piece of Sacher torte at a nearby coffee house) we hopped the U-Bahn north to visit Sigmund Freud's apartments just as daylight began to fade.
Freud lived and worked in Vienna for 40 years, developing his reputation as father of psychoanalysis before being forced to pay the Nazis the equivalent of $200,000 so he and his family could leave the country unharmed.  

Back to the hotel for a quick wardrobe change then out for - what else? -  eine, kleine Nacht Musik. A little night music at the Haus des Industrie to hear Vienna's Royal Orchestra play two hours of Mozart and Strauss hits.  I recognized most of the program, and not just because Bugs Bunny had done a superb job introducing the music to Americans. Rather, I began classical piano lessons when I was 10 and became enthralled with the music for the next couple decades. So here in Vienna, when the first tantalizing notes of Mozart’s Figaro Overture crept in, and as the strings and timpani crescendo’ed, emotions welled up that I didn't know were even there. Not a dry eye in my head.

Vienna's Royal Orchestra taking their bows at the end of their Mozart and Strauss concert

Walking through the village of Dürnstein along the Danube
The next day we took a trip along the Danube River to the medieval town of Krems, then to Dürnstein where England's King Richard the Lionheart was once held for ransom.

From there we traveled through the Wachau Valley's wine country. The valley is a Unesco World Heritage site and is designated with Outstanding Universal Value. We continued on through Willendorf (home of the famous 24,000 year old Venus thereof),  then toured the baroque abbey at Melk.

Once back in Vienna we sat down to a delicious grilled dinner in the Naschmarkt, a quarter-mile long market place that has been in operation since the 16th century. 
The next day we rose early for our Sunday morning walk. One perque of getting out and about before the usual tourist throng is quietly enjoying an unexpected treat - like hearing a choir rehearse in an old church long since abandoned for prayer. 
We had just enough time to walk through the Vienna's Central Park and by the famous Spanish Riding School where the Lippizaner horses are stabled. From there we squeezed in one last coffee house visit (Nuss torte, this time) then said auf Wiedersehen to Vienna.

A slice of Nuss Torte (nut torte) and one final coffee
For more photos of our trip to Vienna, clicken Sie hier, bitte.


While walking through a side alley early Sunday morning, I heard beautiful ethereal music coming from nearby. I turned the corner and entered Augustinian Church. There I stood quietly, and listened to this lovely rehearsal.


Monday, September 28, 2015

The Cotswolds: Our 25-mile Hike

The Cotswolds. This beautiful part of central England is the stuff of folk tales, with its picturesque villages dotting the countryside.
The old shops and cottages, built from honey-colored Cotswold stone create a storybook setting and the village names only add to the charm: Moreton-in-Marsh, Bourton-On-The-Water, Milton-Under-Wychwood, Upper Swell, Lower Swell.  
Me in front of our 17th century hotel,
The Kings Arms
And because its history is so well-preserved (70% of all new construction must use Cotswold stone), big-name chain hotels are frowned upon. So we stayed in a 500-year old coach inn at the highest point of the Cotswolds, the historic wool town of Stow-on-the-Wold.

Day 1: The town of Stow-on-the-Wold dates back to the 12th century but its settlement was mentioned in the Domesday Book, in 1068. During the 18th century the wool trade here had become so lucrative, more than 20,000 sheep could be sold in one day.
We arrived mid-day with enough time before check-in for lunch and a stroll around town. Its central market place has long since given way to parking spots but the cozy feel still lingers, and  a market springs up once a month with local vendors hawking their wares. 

The small but lovely St. Edwards church has a set of doors wedged between two thick trees like something out of Middle Earth. And on the north end of the village is an old set of stocks used long ago to house “villains and knaves and drunks and hooligans and foreign folk of unsavory appearance.” I ruled myself out, thank you very much.
Decisions, decisions.
After lunch we made a quick walk down to the neighboring village of Maugersbury, population 149. I think there were more apple trees than people.
Back in Stow, we checked into the King’s Arms Inn, then spent the rest of the day antiquing, window shopping and walking hither and yon. All told: an easy 5 miles.

Day 2: After a full English breakfast at the inn (egg, sausage, back bacon, mushrooms, baked beans, grilled tomato, black pudding and fried bread), we headed out early for a hike through some of the muddiest trails we had been on. We made it down to Upper Slaughter then on to Bourton-on-the-Water, a lovely town with the sweetest little bridges I’d ever seen.  

One of several footbridges in the village of Bourton-on-the-Water

Burford Village
I publically confess here and now that after walking 6 miles, we took a bus back to Stow, hopped in our car and drove to the villages of Burford then Northleach, where a parish volunteer strongly suggested we drive another mile to see the church at Hampnett with its surprising interior. How could we resist?
By the time we returned to Stow, we were ready for dinner and a pint. Or at least half a pint.

Day 3: It was time to stop lolly-gagging and take a proper hike. The entire English countryside is criss-crossed with an intricate network of footpaths. On top of these are about a dozen major trail ways, one of which is the 100-mile long Cotswold Way.


Up to this point we’d hiked the minor footpaths but now it was time to go big. We got on the Cotswold Way in the village of Broadway, and for the next 7 hours hiked an up-and-down curvy loop through the villages of Stanton, Stanway, and Snowshill then back up to Broadway.
Fourteen miles of scenic beauty that included climbing the equivalent to 98 flights of stairs. For me, a personal best and well worth every step.
There are over 4,000 miles of these dry-stack stone walls in the Cotswolds alone.

Beautiful cottage and roses in Stanton. This village was a sugar cookie of sweetness .
On the last leg of our hike, headed back to Broadway. Until next time . . .

Back at the inn I had a good long soak in the tub followed by a broken sleep, thanks to several loud drunks and hooligans whooping it up at 3:00 a.m. in the court yard. Some things never change, el oh el. Time for a new set of stocks, perhaps?

For many, many more pictures of our Cotswold holiday, please click right here.
Not sure why, but there was a kangaroo on top of this thatched roof. A kangaroof? 

Monday, August 17, 2015

Manchester, Mr. Darcy and Hats

I'm not ashamed to admit it: I love Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and the best adaptation I've ever seen - hands down - is the BBC's 1995 mini-series. (Can I have an amen?)

It should come as no surprise then that we would eventually find our way to at least one of the houses  used for this series.
On the spur of the moment, we packed a small bag and headed west to Cheshire County and Mr. Darcy's famous estate, Pemberley. Technically, it's called Lyme Park and is maintained by the National Trust. 

At Pemberley - I mean, Lyme Park
Only the exterior of the house was used in P&P due to some kerfuffle over filming rights for the interior. It's just as well, since Lyme Park's interior is dark and foreboding, not at all light and airy as the film portrayed. Some twenty years later we're still not allowed to take pictures inside.
Still, it was easy-peasy to imagine Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy awkwardly running into one another near the front of the house, and then Mr. Darcy bounding down the steps after changing into something more presentable.

So easy to imagine Mr. Darcy on these steps.

Why was there a Hat Museum in little Stockport?
We had booked a room in Manchester and the train to and from Lyme Park passed through the small town of Stockport. I probably wouldn't have paid it much nevermind  except there was an old brick smoke stack rising from the town with the words 'Hat Museum' painted down its front. That was odd. What in the world was a hat museum doing way up here in Cheshire--? Then it hit me.
The only Cheshire thing I'm acquainted with is the grinning cat from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. The same story, of course, gave us The Hatter who was mad like so many others in his trade. In the 19th century, mercury was used in the felting process to make hats and extended exposure to it caused mercury poisoning, or madness.  At one point, there were more than 100 hat-making cottages in little Stockport. I quickly gave it a google and, sure enough, Lewis Carroll grew up about 25 miles west of here. He would have been well familiar with many a mad hatter, as the expression itself predates Carroll's work by a good 30 years.


Proper Burger and Hard Milkshake
Saturday evening back in Manchester we ducked into Byron's for a "proper hamburger."

As good as the burgers were, the hard milkshakes were even better. Yes, the hard is what you think it is and why haven't I heard of these before?

The Richmond Tea Room with its Wonderland décor

Sunday morning, we walked around Manchester seeing the sights, the huge block-long town hall, the amazing art gallery with its unusual paintings and 1950's dress exhibit.

For lunch, we found a great little out-of-the-way tea room down on Richmond St with an 'Alice in Wonderland' theme.

They had a crazy soundtrack playing, mostly old scratchy blues and jazz records from the 1930's that somehow worked here.

Afterwards it was back on the train to head home. Manchester is a hard-working open minded city, with one hand protecting its past while the other lays down light rails for its future. And as much as I looked, I could not find any Cheshire cats grinning or otherwise. Perhaps they were all busy disappearing.

For more pictures of our quick trip to Pemberley (I mean,  Lyme Park), the Hat Museum, and Manchester click here.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Avebury Henge - England's Other, Older Stone Circle

Avebury in Wiltshire County is home to Europe's oldest known stone circle, older than even the better-known Stonehenge.
The Avebury stone circle is classified as a World Heritage Site and we started here for a 7-mile hike up the Marlborough Downs. (Up the Downs. Still funny.) 
 From one of the markers:  "Henges are intriguing monuments built in the British Isles between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago . . . Avebury is one of the biggest and contains the remains of the largest prehistoric circle in the world."
Two of the Seven Main Barrows (burial mounds) in Avebury
It also holds some kind of ethereal power  over some people during the summer and winter solstices. Visitors are advised to arrive early on those days as it will be packed with people.  (We actually drove through here on June 21 with some friends, and it was indeed well visited.)
In addition to the stones, there are also barrows or burial mounds from the Neolithic era within walking distance.
And there's Silbury Hill, the tallest manmade hill in Europe. It apparently contains no known artifacts and experts still speculate what it was used for: religious ceremony, memorial, etc. Still, interesting that a people would spend the time building it.
Silbury Hill, the largest manmade hill in Europe dates back to about 2,400 BC.
Another view of the Avebury Henge Stone Circle
Our hike, although surprisingly hot, was not nearly as rough as last weekend's and consisted mostly of gentle slopes:
Lovely vistas:

The occasional biker or two:
Ripening wheat fields:
And of course, a quaint village and even quainter thatched cottage:

Then it was back to the stone circle:

Driving east toward home, we stopped in the old market town of Marlborough for a late lunch and well-earned half pint. Marlborough is roughly the half-way point on the old coaching route between  Bristol and London. The market still thrives on Saturdays.

The Saturday Market in the old market town of Marlborough.
Sign in front of the Castle & Ball Hotel. An inn has stood in this spot for 500 years and some of its original timbers date back to the Spanish Armada. (I appreciate it would've been more helpful if I'd taken a picture of the hotel itself, but that didn't happen. I blame the half pint.)