Castles and Cathedrals

3 02 2009

Since my mother-in-law is an architectural historian specializing in churches, we decided to take another bus tour in order to see Canterbury Cathedral.  If you have been following this series on London, you may have noticed that our sightseeing has been slanted toward history and architecture for this trip.  This is part of the reason why we did more tours than usual.  We were also interested in seeing some more castles and the Cliffs of Dover, so we decided to take a tour that visited Leeds Castle, Canterbury Cathedral, and Dover.  These three sights are often grouped together for touring purposes because they are all located to the east of London.

Leeds Castle

Our first stop was Leeds Castle, a lovely castle in Kent.  While not a major castle, Leeds has a history as a royal residence and is a fine example of a moated castle.  The castle grounds include a museum and several gardens, an aviary, dog collar museum, maze, conference center and other attractions.  You can even have a wedding here!  

The grounds of Leeds Castle were graced with Black Swans.

Although a manor stood there before the Norman conquest, the first stone fortifications date back to the 1100s.   

Ruined parts of the older fortification at Leeds Castle.

Edward I and his queen Eleanor of Castille lived there in the 1200s, making it a royal palace. From that point forward, royalty occasionally resided there, including several queens. The castle was often used as a stopover for trips to and from the Continent, including a famous visit by Henry VIII before his meeting with Francis I in France in 1520. You can read more of the history of the castle here.

Leeds Castle

After the middle ages, the castle eventually passed into the hands of private owners and was purchased by the Culpeper family. The Hon. Olive, Lady Baillie, the last private owner of Leeds Castle remodeled the castle into a gracious home and created a private foundation for the maintenance of the castle. Today, the foundation owns and operates the castle.

Leeds Castle

Inside the museum, there are guides in every room. You can ask them any questions you would like. I found the medieval parts of the castle much more interesting than the remodeled gracious home sections.

I did appreciate this sun filled library, though.

The maze was interesting as a novelty. Since I had never been inside a hedge maze, I had to go in and see. We met one of the other people in our tour group at the entrance to the maze. Apparently, he had been stuck in the maze for 25 minutes! Fortunately, a kindly tourguide offered to lead us through the maze since we were short on time and needed to get back to the bus. At the center of the maze is a cheesy “grotto” with some lit up monsters and mermaids. 

While historically Leeds was a relatively minor royal castle, we still enjoyed our visit here. The castle and grounds are beautifully kept and maintained, the guides welcoming and informative, and it was lovely to just stroll around and enjoy the romantic environs. I could definitely see myself living here. Oops, did I say that out loud?

After Leeds Castle and a brief forgettable lunch, we drove to the city of Canterbury to view its famous Cathedral. As the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of the Church of England, this structure is the most important cathedral in all of Britain.

Entrance to Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral is also famous for being the site of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket and the pilgrims who visited his shrine as told in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

The site of the martyrdom of Beckett.

Outside of its historical and religious significance, the cathedral itself is magnificent. Canterbury Cathedral was founded in 602 AD by St. Augustine and dedicated to St. Savior. Over the centuries, successive archbishops extended and added onto the main structure. Fires and raids also prompted new designs through the centuries.

The cathedral has both Norman and Gothic architectural styles incorporated within its design.

The nave at Canterbury Cathedral

The ceiling at Canterburgy Cathedral

View of the choir at Canterbury Cathedral

Personally, I found the Norman crypt the most beautiful and intriguing part of the tour, but pictures are not allowed.  Down below ground, the crypt was dark, quiet, and very still.   There are small chapels within the crypt where you can see faded paintings on the walls that date back a thousand years. It was truly a humbling experience.

Our final destination on the tour was the town of Dover, home of the famous White Cliffs of Dover. Dover is geographically the closest part of England to France, and located just across the Channel from Calais.

View of the seashore in Dover

The White Cliffs of Dover

Dover Castle

We viewed Dover just as the sun started to go down.  It was a peaceful way to end our day.


The English Countryside in Autumn

29 01 2009

As fans of English literature and culture, my travel companion D (my mother in law) and I felt that a trip to England would not be complete without a tour of the countryside. We wanted to see the fields of sheep, quaint cottages, parish churches, manor houses, and places of learning that featured so prominently in all the novels we’ve read and shows we’ve seen. That is, we wanted to see more of England’s pleasant pastures and mountains green and less of its Satanic mills.

A charming view of a Cotswold farm with fields of sheep in the background.

As non-drivers who didn’t have a lot of time, the surprising choice for us was the bus tour. We originally wanted to do a tour that provided a tour guide, used trains, and took us to fewer sights (so we can spend more time at them) but the tour operators were not running that tour when we were there in November.

Seeing Oxford, the oldest English speaking university in the world, was a must for us!

Magnificent Gothic architecture at Oxford.

Old buildings blend with those that are not so old at Oxford.

Although I am usually not a big proponent of bus tours, sometimes it is the only viable option. I try to avoid bus tours in general because they are usually expensive, crowded, and on a set schedule. I never feel like I have enough time to see what I want to see. In addition, being part of a mob and/or only seeing something through a window isolates you from the places you visit. You only see what the tour company wants you to see, and that may or may not be true to the place.

We were only able to take a quick peek at the town of Oxford.

However, if you are short on time, cannot drive, and absolutely want to see something, even if it’s just a glimpse, sometimes it is your best (and only) option. Bus tours do have some positives; they usually provide tour guides, they are great for inexperienced solo travelers, and you will not get lost. In addition, some tour companies really put in the time and effort to make a well rounded experience, such as themed tours. If you are picky about what type of tour you choose, you can minimize the bad parts and make the best of your trip.

Radcliffe Camera, the most photographed library on campus.

A guide will explain why there are 38 different colleges at Oxford and how they are organized. They will tell you where famous movies were filmed. They will attempt to explain architectural details.  They will make cheesy jokes.


According to our guide, this was Tolkien’s Room at Exeter College.

One of the many libraries at Oxford. They filmed scenes from the Harry Potter movies here.

We ended up choosing a mini-bus tour (maximum 12 persons) of Oxford, the Cotswolds, and Stratford-Upon-Avon. I actually didn’t want to go to Stratford-upon-Avon since I had already seen it and thought it was overrated. Also a third location meant less time at the other two. However, there was not an option that excluded it. We chose the mini-bus over the huge tour bus primarily because it could navigate the tiny lanes in the Cotswold towns but also because it avoided the huge crowds/mob feeling.

A gorgeous home in Stow-on-the-Wold.

We stopped by a gourmet market in Stow-on-the-Wold. Too bad we only had 10 minutes.

Another positive of small groups was that the tour guide could make small adjustments to his or her commentary and itinerary to suit our interests. For instance, when our guide heard that my travel companion was interested in historic churches, we decided to explore the parish church in the town of Stow-on-the-Wold.

An atmospheric church in Stow-on-the Wold.

The fascinating graveyard of the parish church in Stow-on-the-Wold.

Another view of the graveyard.

After seeing Oxford and exploring Stow-in-the-Wold, we had lunch in the town center.

View from the town center of Stow-on-the-Wold.

Another view of Stow-on-the-Wold.

This fish pie was as delicious as it looks!

I wish we could have stayed at a B&B like this in the Cotwolds.

After lunch, we drove around the Cotswolds some more. We stopped at Lower Slaughter and walked up to Upper Slaughter. These village names sound much more bloody then they are. Slaughter actually derives from “slough” meaning wet land.

Homes along a stone wall in Lower Slaughter.

Peeking into a quaint house in Lower Slaughter.

Autumn Leaves in Lower Slaughter.

I love the sheep on the hill.

View of Upper Slaughter from Lower Slaughter.

Church in Upper Slaughter.

Driving out of Upper Slaughter.

After a scenic drive around the Cotswolds, we then proceeded onto the final part of the journey. We were actually running late, but still managed to be the last group into Shakespeare’s birthplace. This worked out quite well since we ended up having a private tour given by a Scottish Laird!

Shakespeare’s Birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Harry Pottermania can be seen all over England.

Although travel doesn’t always go as planned, compromises are not so bad if you do your research.  In this case, a mini-bus tour served our needs quite wonderfully despite our reservations about bus travel.  We were able to see the Cotswolds and didn’t have to worry about transportation.  Now whenever I read British novels that feature pastures, villages,  and universities, I don’t have to imagine.  I can just remember.

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