We reserved our last day in London to escape it and see something other than an impressive city. Fortunately it’s not hard to do. There are bus companies that do these sorts of things. (We chose an Evan Evans tour.) One advantage of being sixty is for one of the first times in my life I could get a senior discount. Also, the tour company picks you up at the hotel and delivers you back to an Underground station, so it was convenient as well. The trick is to not pick too long a tour. One that took us to Bath would have been more than 15 hours! As it was ours was a busy twelve-hour tour.
You also get a feel for life outside of the city. Southern England is not exactly flat but there are no mountains to speak of. The closest parallel here in the United States is southeastern and central Ohio, with the exception being that England has a much better infrastructure. There are fewer large roads but more railway stations. Since it gets plenty of rain and moisture, it is a lush if often overcast land.
Windsor Castle – Buckingham Palace in London is the Queen’s primary residence, but it’s not particularly pretty, just very convenient for facilitating her busy schedule. She puts in more than 300 appearances a year, not bad for an old monarch who recently turned 90. I can understand why given the choice she would prefer to be elsewhere. In fact she was in residence when we visited Windsor Castle, as evidenced by her flag flying from the castle’s flagstaff. It didn’t slow us down taking the public tour, along with thousands of others – it’s quite a hopping tourist destination. The Queen stayed in her private chambers while we walked its inner courtyard and then ascended into the residence itself. The tour is quite impressive. Windsor Castle is on par with Versailles but has quite a view on its knob of a hill. The tour will take you through many rooms, including the king’s bedchamber, various libraries, studies and whole rooms that are nothing more than pantries with priceless plates and such that are probably rarely used. (Unfortunately, pictures are not allowed inside the residence.) It’s unlikely that Britons will have to fight off an armed invasion with swords, pikes and suits of armor. Should it ever be necessary, there are thousands of these items to gawk at behind secure displays along with endless amounts of artwork. Originally built by the French during the Norman years, today the castle still impressed; even on a dreary day like the day we visited. The city of Windsor can be found just outside its gates. Windsor Castle is definitely worth a day trip.
Stonehenge – To visit Stonehenge, drive a couple of hours west onto the Salisbury Plain. You can see Stonehenge from the highway in the distance but of course it’s better to get a closer look. It’s a Celtic henge (a circle of stone or wooden uprights; there were wooden ones too that did not survive) that acted as something of a calendar and celestial navigator for these ancient people, not to mention a place of public sacrifice. It’s not exactly the pyramids, but Stonehenge at least predates most of the pyramids. For its time it was quite a logistical feat to simply quarry and move the stones more than thirty miles into position, let alone to position them for astronomical events. Stonehenge sits literally in the middle of nowhere. It is frequently windy on the Salisbury Plain with gale force winds the day we were there. It was hard not to be swept away by the wind. You can’t actually touch the stones but you can walk around it. There is a visitors’ center a short bus ride away. What you will learn is how little is actually known. You can see many earthen mounds nearby, burial sites for prominent people of the time it was built and most actively used (3100BC – 1600 BC). We toured Stonehenge a few days before the equinox, which explained a long row of RVs nearby. There is still a pagan community in England (and elsewhere) to celebrate these celestial events.
Oxford – In fact, there is no official Oxford University, but there are a host of independent colleges in Oxford butt up against each other that compete with similar universities in Cambridge, England for being the center of learning, really in the world. Among its graduates were our tour guide, who has a degree in History from an Oxford college and apparently a peerage title he never uses. He regaled us with fascinating stories of what it’s like to study there, and showed us many of the haunts frequented by the best and the brightest, including pubs that go back to Tudor times. He showed us the pub where C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien argued about religion (Lewis was COE, Tolkien a Catholic). While not quite the Shire or even Bree, you can certainly understand why Tolkien found inspiration here. Oxford is chock full of the best and brightest with impossibly high standards and rules that are easily broken and usually lead you to be dismissed if you transgress any of them. If you can afford the tuition and can get accepted, there are no barriers based on age or national origin. Bill Clinton studied at Oxford. The Thames River is much narrower in Oxford, but annually it still hosts a rowing race with Eton College in Cambridge. Oxford is definitely best appreciated with an experienced tour guide and we were blessed to have one to make this grey place flood with color on a dark and dreary evening.
- It’s not often that I fly on a foreign carrier. We flew British Airways between Boston’s Logan Airport and London’s Heathrow Airport on 747s. Even way back in coach where we were, the service and standards were quite superior. Our meals were tasty, wine didn’t cost extra and the entertainment system was first class. Seats were still narrow and cramped but British Airways easily outshone any American airline I have ever flown on lately. Thanks for making flying fun again!
- Heathrow is a very impressive airport, with five major terminals but just two east-west runways (a third will apparently be built). Heathrow is also something of a shopping destination as each terminal is pretty much a high-end shopping mall where gates seem somewhat incidental. At least where we were in Terminal E the standards were quite high.
- No one likes jet lag, but direct flights do make a huge difference in minimizing it, so it’s worth getting a direct flight if one is available. Having a hotel you can crash at without waiting for check in time helped too, and we had that luxury. Getting through customs though was a lengthy process. I was surprised how quickly I adjusted to local time and how fast I adjusted returning home as well.