May 15, 2012

The Queen’s England

From Belgium we caught a train just across the French border to a town called Calais.

To be honest, we are frightened of France...mostly because we can’t speak the language at all. So imagine our delight as we were walking from the train station and stumbled upon a military ceremony playing – no joke – The Star Spangled Banner. Why thank you, France, for that warm welcome!

Besides their beautiful town hall and a WWII bunker smack in the middle of their park, Calais’ biggest claim to fame is their entry point to the English Channel. We boarded the Spirit of France and motored our way over to England. We officially stepped foot in 3 different countries in a matter of 6 hours.

Taking the ferry allowed us to get the best views of something I’ve always wanted to see: the White Cliffs of Dover.

The cliffs are mostly composed of soft white chalk. I found a piece on the ground (which I may or may not have kept), and I can confirm that it feels and works exactly like school chalk. Fun!

 The cliffs are weathering every year, and less than 2 months ago, a huge section collapsed into the channel.

We got really lucky with the weather…if we had come one day later we wouldn’t have been able to see them at all. We had hoped to spend the next morning playing around on top of the cliffs, but we woke up to a completely socked-in coastline. We counted our blessings, packed up, and moved on. The Cliffs of Dover were a highlight to our time in England.

From Dover we took (no kidding) bus number 007 to London. This was my 4th trip to London in the past 2 years, but it was Steve’s first visit, so we took in all of the classics – Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Parliament, Trafalgar Square, Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Knotting Hill, The Thames, Tower Bridge, and the London Eye.

Steve got an absolute kick out of the Beefeaters’ constant ceremonial stomping about.

We also visited a lot of places that I had never seen before like Covent Gardens, Piccadilly Circus, Horse Guards Parade, St. James Park, The National Gallery, London Bridge, and 
The Tube. 

We spent a lot of time at The Tower of London enjoying the crown jewels, coronation regalia, royal armor, torture devices and ravens.

We also went inside Westminster Abbey. Normally it costs 16 pounds to tour the Abbey, but every night around 5:00 there is an Evensong service where the Westminster Choir sings. I highly recommend Evensong to anyone visiting London. The choir sounded like angels singing in the vaulted Abbey, and we got to walk in the front door – which we heard one Londoner refer to as the “Kate Door”.

While we were in London, we hit our 100th day of traveling.

To celebrate, we decided to take in a show on the West End. So we put on the best outfits we could pull out of our backpacks and headed to the theater! I don’t even think they noticed that I was wearing flip flops and Steve was wearing his trail running shoes. We saw a good show called Jersey Boys, a story about the rise and fall of The Four Seasons.

The thing I love about London is that you don’t have to go hunting to feel like you’re in London…the city is alive all around you in the form of double-decker buses, black cabs, delightful accents, and red telephone booths. 

Everything is also so centrally located. Just on the walk from the bus station to our hostel, we crossed 4 sites off our list.

More than I’ve ever seen before, London is Queen crazy! This summer will be Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, celebrating her 60 years on the throne. Every time we saw anything unusual around town, our favorite joke would be, “It’s probably for the Jubilee”. There is surprisingly little up around town about the Olympics…Olympics are on hold until the Jubilee is over.

From London we took a bus across the English countryside to Bath. The countryside is always beautiful, but at this time of year, there are fields after fields blanketed in bright yellow flowers. The flowers are a byproduct of what the English call rapeseed, but we would know it as canola for making canola oil.

Bath is a charming town that was originally founded by the Romans in 43 AD as a spa resort. The Romans believed that water from the hot springs in this area had healing powers, so they erected baths around the water sources.

The Roman Baths are actually an impressive underground complex of baths, sauna rooms, treatment rooms, drainage infrastructure, and a temple for the goddess Minerva.

In the adjoining Pump Room, we tasted the famous Bath water – believed to have fallen as rain 6,000-10,000 years ago. We both agreed that the water tasted like a penny smells.

We found the Inca ruins in South America impressive, but it’s almost unbelievable to think that the Romans were building their empire 1,400 years before the Incas! Our visit to the baths got us really excited to go to Italy.

Bath is full of tidy and symmetrical Georgian architecture. It’s probably the prettiest cookie-cutter town out there! There is fun shopping, beautiful parks, and a clean and happy atmosphere.

One morning we took a tour to another classic that we’ve been looking forward to: Stonehenge.

Stonehenge is a lot smaller than you would imagine, but it surpassed our expectations. It’s believed that Stonehenge was originally comprised of 171 stones and took 1,500 years to build. Some of the rocks weigh more than 7 elephants and were carried up to 240 miles in 3,000 BC. Imagine that!

Stonehenge is aligned with the midsummer sunrise and midwinter sunset, but its exact purpose still remains a mystery.

We rounded out our English tour in Bristol, where there was a cool suspension bridge and directions to our next stop. 

While we were in England we tried many classic dishes…

Full English Breakfast – this alone could easily hold you over until dinner.

Fish & Chips – this was served with mushy peas, which under normal circumstances we wouldn’t go near. But…we are still excited about anything served on a plate that is green, so we surprised even ourselves when we gobbled up the mushy peas.

Pies – we had some tasty pies at The Raven in Bath. Our favorite was the Jubilee Pie made with sweet corn, coconut mango chutney, and free-range Coronation chicken. Coronation chicken? They really are milking this Diamond Jubilee.

Pasties – this sounds dirty, but these are actually just empanadas. We thought we left these behind in South America!?!

Indian Food – no visit to England would be complete without it.

Sally Lunn Buns – these famous buns have been made in the same historic house in Bath since 1680. How famous? The recipe passes along with the deed to the house. 

Bath Bun – Sally Lunn’s big competition. These buns are topped with sugar crystals and raisins. The winner? Sally Lunn.

Tea & Crumpets – we enjoyed our first ever High Tea at The Pump Room in Bath. We sipped Earl Gray with our pinkies out while munching on hot, buttered crumpets. How proper of us.

Sticky Toffee Pudding – not a pudding…more like a sponge cake soaked in toffee sauce and served with ice cream. We had this at a fantastic little underground restaurant in London from the 1600s called Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.

We wish we could have spent more time in England…it is just so delightful. How could you not love a country with towns like Sandwich and Badminton? And why is it that sayings like “Too-Da-Loo”, “Hunky-Dory”, “Oki-Doki” and “Super Duper” sound cheesy in America, but here they sound so charming? It’s probably because of the Jubilee.

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