Friday, March 29, 2013

Kent, England

I took all of these photos at Penshurst Place and Garden in Kent, known as 'the Garden of England.'  We ended our trip here, visiting with old friends who have now lived in Sevenoaks for many years and seeing a little more of a part of England that has perhaps an embarassment of riches.  On a previous trip, we visited Chartwell (Churchill's home from 1924 to the end of his life) and Sissinghurst  Castle, whose beautiful garden was created by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in the 1930s.  Both were absolutely wonderful and memorable.

On this visit, our friends Luc and Lorraine took us to three castles that were equally as wonderful, one of which is practically within walking distance of their house: Knole, referred to as "England's forgotten palace."  Set in a medieval deer park (and yes, there are deer everywhere and they walk up quite close to people), Knole is one of England's most important and complete historic houses.  It was remodeled by the family of Vita Sackville-West, who still live here today and have for the last 400 years.

Penshurst is one of England's oldest family homes, and it has belonged to royalty and nobles -- including Henry VIII -- for more than six centuries.  The castle's Barons Hall, dating from 1341, is magnificent.  Sir John Julius Norwich has described it as "one of the grandest rooms in the world" and it has featured in several films, including 'The Princess Bride.'  But Penshurst's formal gardens really knock your socks off.  An 11 acre series of walled gardens create garden 'rooms,' each one distinct from another, with different foliage and blooms occurring throughout the year.

Hever Castle & Gardens is noteworthy for its double moated, 13th century castle which was the childhood home of Anne Boleyn.  Its gardens are beautiful as well, but the water maze might be the property's most popular feature!

Kent is also home to Leeds Castle, Tunbridge Wells Museum and Art Gallery, Spa Valley Railway, Canterbury Cathedral, Dover Castle, and the home of Charles Darwin (an English Heritage property), among many other noteworthy attractions. 

Regrettably, I was not able to visit the Great Dixter House & Gardens, which is in nearby East Sussex.  I'd especially wanted to visit Great Dixter because the manor house there -- with one of the largest surviving timber-framed halls in the country -- was the longtime home of noted British gardener and gardening writer Christopher Lloyd, and the gardens consistently appear on a short list of top gardens in England.  But additionally, readers of my Istanbul book may recall that I included an essay entitled 'The Turkish Rose' by Fergus Garrett, who is the head gardener at Great Dixter.  It's a wonderful piece, and I'd hoped to meet him in person.  Ah well, as the French say, il faut toujours garder une perle pour la prochaine fois (it's necessary to save a pearl for the next time)...

Finally, I have come to the end of this series of posts, and therefore, I'm about to start posting like mad on a number of other topics and destinations: the pile I've amassed for blog posts is a leaning tower of papers, and needs to be reduced!

The photo of the London Eye below, as seen from the Kensington Gardens, is a reminder to either reserve in advance or arrive early to buy your tickets.  My daughter really wanted to go, and we waffled as my husband is afraid of heights and wasn't keen on it, and then we made a last-minute decision to go but when we arrived in the late morning the wait was an hour and a half.  La prochaine fois! 

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Cotswolds

When we checked in at the rental counter to pick up the car we were driving to the Cotswolds, the representative told us he was offering us "the deal of the century": an upgrade to a Mercedes Benz for only 9 euros more per day.   It seemed like a good idea at the time, so we agreed.  But it had been almost 14 years since my husband had last driven in a car with the steering wheel on the opposite side, and though he was very comfortable with it in England and Wales, this time proved different, and he was on the verge of cancelling the whole plan to drive to the Cotswolds.  But he decided to persevere, and we finally arrived in Adlestrop (after a few near mishaps) at The Old Post Office, a lovely bed-and-breakfast that was once an 18th century post office.  It was lunchtime and our hosts sent us to nearby Daylesford, an absolutely fabulous organic farm with a restaurant and shop and tables set up in an indoor courtyard.  We were at one of those tables in the courtyard, enjoying an assortment of delicious breads with a salad of heirloom tomatoes, feta, and mint and another with wild rice, dried apricots, and pistachios; my daughter was drinking an elderflower pressé from Belvoir Fruit Farms and I was drinking a crisp, white wine from Daylesford's sister farm in Provence, Château Léoube; the sun came out, and my husband asked, "what would you say if we didn't drive on to Cornwall tomorrow?"  Without missing a beat I said that was a terrific idea.

The original plan was too ambitious to begin with -- a three to four hour drive -- even under the best of circumstances (being comfortable behind the wheel).  So, happily we were able to stay on at The Old Post Office, and enjoy more visits to Daylesford!  I am completely smitten with this estate, run by Lady Carole Bamford.  Not only is there the cheese room, produce market, bakery, and cafe -- which was honored with a Bib Gourmand award from Michelin two years in a row -- but there's also the farmshop, which is filled with truly wonderful items like jars of strong English mustard, red onion and apple chutney, plum jam, sturdy cotton canvas tote bags, wooden utensils, towels, tabletop items, body and bath items, olive oil from Château Léoube, and an assortment of different sized storage containers made of white ceramic with smooth, wooden lids that I absolutely love.  And, there's also a cookery school and a spa.  (I didn't know until I got home that there is a three-story Farmshop & Cafe in London [44b Pimlico Road, SW1 / Sloane Square tube stop / open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.] plus one in the Selfridges Food Hall [400 Oxford Street, W1] and another in Notting Hill at 208-212 Westbourne Grove, W11.)

The Old Post Office is a truly lovely lodging that is run by a very friendly couple who are enthusiastic about their little corner of the region, and there is a selection of guides and maps for guests to peruse.  There are two large bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, on two different levels, and the breakfast served is substantial, varied, and delicious.  The hosts do fully expect guests to vacate the premises after breakfast until about 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon, so this isn't the place to stay if you have visions of lolling about all day.  Of course, this is the general pattern of bed-and-breakfasts everywhere; but one day when we came back from a hike at lunchtime, to kick off our muddy boots and take showers, we were surprised to learn that this was unexpected and not really welcome.  I highly recommend staying here, and this somewhat peculiar policy (which should be clearly stated on the website or in the rooms) is not a reason to avoid reserving: simply plan your days so that you are out and about until the late afternoon.

The Old Post Office property is also very pretty, and just to the left of the driveway is a wooden bus shelter with ADLESTROP painted on it in big letters.  The village is tiny -- less than 100 people -- and is in the North Cotswolds in a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  Adlestrop's railway station (no longer around) was immortalised in a poem written by Edward Thomas (1878-1917), who was a poet and essayist killed in action in the Battle of Arras in France.  On 24 June, 1914, Thomas was on an express train that may or may not have made an unscheduled stop at the Adlestrop station -- there seems to some disagreement about this on various Web pages I read.  But to me it doesn't matter whether the train really did or didn't stop -- it's  a beautiful poem, one which gives the impression of someone looking out the window of the train and being struck by the utter peace and quiet of a beautiful village on the eve of the First World War.  A copy of the poem was in our room at The Old Post Office, and appears below:   


Yes, I remember Adlestrop --
The name because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly.  It was late June.

The steam hissed.  Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform.  What I saw
Was Adlestrop -- only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Adlestrop's other claim to fame is that Jane Austen's uncle was the vicar at  The Old Rectory, and according to The Old Post Office's website, it's believed that Austen used Adlestrop as a model for at least one location in Mansfield Park.  

We spent our three days visiting the Bourton House Garden ('The Cotswolds' best kept secret,' 2 miles west of Moreton-in-Marsh); Chipping Campden (with its beautiful, honey-colored stone Market Hall dating from the 17th century; the word 'chipping' means market); Lower Slaughter ("Voted Most Beautiful Village in the Cotswolds"); Stow-on-the-Wold (very picturesque and home to The Royalist Hotel, said to be the oldest inn in England); and Broadway (a quintessential Cotswold village that is home to the very atmospheric Lygon Arms Hotel). The annual Cotswolds Gardens Guide is a very helpful brochure that can be found at all the area gardens and most inns and shops.

We also enjoyed a terrific dinner in the pub at The Fox Inn (Lower Oddington), which was clearly a favorite locally and made us feel we were truly in the English countryside. There are three rooms available for overnight accommodation.

Note: though the day we arrived it was warm and sunny, the weather turned quite cool, and was downright cold on the day we went to the Bourton House Garden -- cold as in my lips turned blue and my teeth were chattering!  Plus it was raining for part of the day.  Just because it's summer in England doesn't necessarily mean you can get by with cotton shirts and shorts: be sure to bring pants, a warm sweater, a small umbrella or a rain parka, and appropriate footwear if you're interested in walking along the Cotswold Way National Trail.  The Trail is a spectacular, 102-mile, long distance walk between Chipping Campden and Bath.  You can walk it in one continuous journey or in shorter sections, and you pass through grasslands, villages, pastures, valleys, and woodlands and the views are tremendous.  And if you're a map nut like me, you will really appreciate the British Ordnance Survey Maps, one of which (OL45) is devoted to the Cotswolds.

As this post turned out to be longer than I expected, I will post one more, on Kent, before I finally turn to other destinations and topics!