Maidenhead, UK 2008 (and Loire Valley, France)

MAIDENHEAD, Berkshire
(Recently retired – and my first home exchange)


24th February 2008: After a whirlwind of farewells, and a great day meeting Daryl (my home exchangee) when he arrived in Adelaide, it was time to hit the sky. The flight was long and cramped, and a 5 hour stopover in Singapore didn’t help. Arrived at Heathrow at 5.20am, then had an interminable wait for luggage and a search for my guitar. An hour later I emerged into the cold dawn of an English Sunday morning. Poor taxi driver had been cruising for 3/4 hr waiting for me. We eventually we found each other and he was bright and chirpy for the 25-min drive to Maidenhead.

Maidenhead is just to the west of London – on the River Thames in Berkshire in the Royal Borough of Windsor. Windsor Castle is only a few miles away, and from what I’ve seen so far, the surrounding countryside is stunningly beautiful. The trees are still bare, but millions of daffodils and other bulbs are blooming everywhere and there’s a feeling that Spring will burst any day. It’s definitely coat and woolly scarf weather, but the sun’s been shining every day.

Front garden, Cob Cottage

Daryl’s friends David & Sophy met me at Cob Cottage – an heroic effort at 7am on a cold Sunday morning. And I’m now completely in love with my new English home. Flowers, wine and chocolates made me feel welcome … thanks Daryl! From the entrance, a charming, comfy sitting room leads into a dining room and sunny living space overlooking a green lawn, blossom trees, patio area and pots full of bulbs – and through the bay window the first morning there were even two plump grey squirrels bouncing around the garden. How English!  There’s a working farm almost directly over the back fence, so the smell of country hay and cows adds to the atmosphere. Just beyond that, the mighty M4 motorway stretches across the landscape – but it’s not visible from the cottage and not really intrusive.

A bit fuzzy-headed and jet lagged for the first 24 hours, but I couldn’t resist going for a long walk around the immediate area soon after I arrived.  All the houses along Ockwells Road are unique, but typically English cottages, with names like Fir Tree Cottage, Robin Cottage, The Beeches. The road itself is almost a country lane… when spring comes it’ll be a mass of greenery and flowers. A bit further afield there are rows of quaint old single-fronted cottages.

Ockwells Road in winter
Boulters Lock, Maidenhead

Ventured out in the car the next day. Drove into Maidenhead and managed to find my way around pretty well. It’s bigger than I’d imagined, full of winding roads and streets … nothing square like Adelaide.  People in the shops, library etc are all very pleasant, & a nice man in the music shop tuned my guitar.  Then, over coffee in Sainsbury’s I met Pauline, who I think will become a friend – about my age, a travel addict, music-lover, theatre-goer, walker, historian etc. We’re meeting for lunch on Saturday. I continued on, driving and walking along the river past some famous old locks, and houses that must belong to the rich and famous. Very privileged anyway. Magnificent old mansions are dotted all around this area, with some of the best just out of Maidenhead in charming little villages like Cookham and Bray.

Walked into town again yesterday- about 20 mins- and I now have a fair handle on the layout.

Maidenhead: Journal 2

No danger of getting bored in Britain ….

Yesterday afternoon I decided to drive to Norden Farm Arts Centre to check the roads by daylight, because I’d booked to go to a Reading Group session there in the evening. Norden Farm is an attractive Centre for performing arts, music, theatre, workshops etc – not far away. While I was there I wandered through the local art exhibition, then decided to continue on driving through the countryside. I wound around the back roads and lanes and ended up following the signposts to Windsor – about 8 miles away. What a lovely town! Dominated by the Castle, but with very attractive shops and malls and a cosy kind of feel. I’d forgotten how enormous Windsor Castle is – can’t remember much about it at all actually. I’m feeling fairly confident driving around the whole area now. The only anxieties are parking and roundabouts at major junctions – plus the fear of ending up on a motorway heading for London or somewhere even more remote. However, so far I’m managing OK ….. it always works out somehow.

dWindsor Castle

The Book Group last night was excellent. About 15 women – all interesting, intelligent, welcoming and inclusive, even though I hadn’t read the book (Helen Dunmore: House of Orphans). With glasses of wine all around, conversation flowed. The discussion was fascinating with a wide range of opinions and ideas but most of the group hadn’t found it a particularly enjoyable or easy read. I’ll definitely go again next month. Next book is Liam Browne: The Emigrant’s Farewell.

Along the Thames

Another bonus of going to the Book Group was meeting Hilda, a bubbly young Welsh woman who lives nearby. She walks every Thursday morning with an older friend, Dora, and invited me to come along. They picked me up and we drove to Cookham – just the 3 of us. They were great company and the walk was exactly as I’d imagined walks along the Thames paths would be … soft misty light, green fields, beautiful bare wintry trees, a few other people out walking dogs .. .and a colourful array of boats moored along the riverbanks. We were in the Bourne End part of the river, and finished the walk back in the old churchyard in Cookham (dating from about the 9th Century). Cookham must be one of the prettiest villages in the whole area.

When the women had called to pick me up, they’d noticed that my car parking lights were on… Anyway, later in the afternoon, Dora called by on her bike, with a battery charger in the bike basket, because she’d guessed (rightly as it turned out) that the battery would be flat. Dora’s in her 70’s but still very active and I was really chuffed that she’d thought to come around to help. In the end I didn’t need it because I called Daryl’s Roadside Assistance people and the guy turned up promptly and gave it a boost. However, then I had to go for another drive to make sure it was fully charged, so I followed some of the same roads I’d gone on yesterday. I prefer the back roads with the little farms, villages, pubs, hedges and trees. The whole area is a maze of little roads and lanes – and all roads seems to lead back to Maidenhead somehow, so you can’t really get lost. I could happily drive around all day except that petrol here costs over £1 a litre (more than $2) so I’ll have to watch the miles a bit.

Maidenhead: Journal 3 A Walk in London

Sunday 2nd March:    It’s Mothers Day in England, so shops are full of flowers and lots of families are out in the parks and restaurants. I had a fairly quiet day and didn’t feel at all neglected because I know my two will shower me with chocolates and flowers when I get back in May on the Aussie Mothers Day (hmmm??).  But I did venture out on the bike today – went for a ride around Ockwells Park (where I saw all the Mothers Day families) and around the local streets of this part of Maidenhead.  Have to say I’m more confident in the car, but perhaps I just need more practice on two wheels.  

Monday 3rd: What a fantastic, wonderful day … a BIG day too, because I went up to London. Spent the whole day walking, walking, walking.  Forget the recommended 10,000 steps a day, I must have done at least 3-4 times as many, but for most of it I felt as if I was floating on air and had to stop myself from skipping.
I realise how much I do love London, and this time it felt special because I didn’t feel like such a tourist. Caught the train from Maidenhead with a Day Travel Card that gave unlimited use of National Rail and the Tube, and I made the most of it – though having said that, I think travel is quite expensive here. The Card cost £13.40 (about $26 dollars). But I would have paid twice as much yesterday for the sheer pleasure of it all.

Started out early and walked to Maidenhead station (about 20 minutes), and before actually catching the train, went to one of the big bookshops in Maidenhead to order the next Book Club book. Then back to the station and on to London. Arrived at Green Park tube station just in time to join one of the famous London Walks, as planned.  These Walks are great, led by young actors who really bring the particular part of the city to life. The Walk I chose was around the Old Palace area (SW1).  We started in a field of daffodils in Green Park. The story goes that this was the site of an old leper hospital many, many years ago and when the poor inmates died, they were buried in the park. In the mistaken belief that the disease might spring up with flowers and plants, nothing but grass was grown in the Park for centuries afterwards. This changed at the time of QE2’s 50th anniversary when hundreds of children were given daffodil bulbs to plant … these have now spread in great masses throughout the Park and look absolutely stunning at this time of the year.

Honey display at Fortnum and Masons

Anyway, on we walked … past Spencer House (the former estate of the Spencer family) and one of the most beautiful houses in London … through little lanes and alleys into exquisite little courtyards of some of the most famous hotels and gentlemen’s clubs … areas that I would never have found by myself. It was like stepping back into the 17th & 18th centuries, with gaslights, secret passageways and more. As the London Walk blurb says “It’s all so well preserved, it’s a wonder the whole neighbourhood hasn’t been sold off as a museum”. We saw the world of Beau Brummel and George IV, the elegant arcades, bespoke tailor shops, shoe-makers and hatters around Jermyn Street, lovely Georgian houses with plaques saying who’d lived there, or who’d done something famous. Then on to Piccadilly, past Fortnum & Masons (Grocers to the Royal Family).  Saw the F&M clock chime at midday and the two little figures (Mr Fortnum & Mr Mason maybe?) come out of the clockworks, bow to each other and return. Maybe it all sounds a bit twee back in Oz, but when you’re here, it’s perfect. Into St James church on Piccadilly, then past Hatchards, the famous bookshop where the Royals, the poets, playwrights, lords and ladies have bought their books over centuries… then back around St James Palace and other magnificent stately homes. Following the walk, I continued to float around on my own – down to Buckingham Palace, back up along Piccadilly and Regent Street, in and out of some of the shops and arcades we’d seen with the guide. Hatchards is now my second favourite bookshop in the world (after Shakespeare & Co in Paris) … and I had to buy something in Fortnum & Masons so found the least expensive jar of cherry jam!  Felt like a cheapskate, but it IS delicious. All the displays of honey, jam, chocolates, tea etc are so tempting … but at prices like £85 ($190) a kilo for handmade chocolates … I don’t think so.

One practical thing I did during the day was to pick up my Great Britain Heritage Pass at the British Visitors Centre in Regent Street. I’d ordered it over the net before leaving home. It’ll get me free into any of the many hundreds of English Heritage properties all over the country for 30 days, so within the next week or so I’ll get it activated and some great sight-seeing expeditions will begin.

After all this walking, I caught the Tube to Pimlico to take in the permanent collection at the Tate Gallery. What a collection of British Art … all the famous names, like Turner, Constable, Whistler etc as well as many more contemporary artists. Could have stayed for hours, but left near closing time as I still had an hour’s train ride home, then another 20-minute walk from the station. Got home safely, well after dark, and was too high to sleep for hours.

4. Wednesday 5 March

Had another great English experience … walking through some beautiful countryside in Oxfordshire with the East Berkshire Ramblers. This walk was very much up hill and down dale in the Chiltern Hills, some of it quite steep in places and I had to pause frequently to take in the view (& maybe just a bit to catch my breath..). It was the best possible day for walking – clear sunny sky, green fields, woolly white sheep, footpaths through woods and open fields, little stiles to climb over and some of the prettiest little villages, including … yes … the Vicar of Dibley’s village. It’s called Turville and it’s where they actually made the series. The church, the cottages and the village green are all there. Another equally charming village was Fingest where we had a mid-morning break in the old churchyard. The walk also went right past an old windmill which everyone told me was where the film ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ was made. This area seems to have a particular claim to fame for films and TV shows … not hard to see why if the producers want the archetypal English village and rolling countryside. At the end of the walk, a small group stayed on for lunch at the Golden Ball pub in Lower Assendon. Since I was in the car with the walk leader, I was included.  David had kindly picked me up for the drive to & from the walk area. Everyone on the walk (about 35 people, mostly retired (but all super fit) was as friendly and interesting as everyone else I’ve met since I arrived. I’ve been invited to join them for as many walks as I want while I’m here.

Today (Thursday 6th) was yet another walk – quite the best way to see this country – this time with Hilda & Dora. Today we went to Runnymede, where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215. It’s also on the Thames, just the other side of Windsor. Seems strange that the Magna Carta doesn’t appear to have been such a feature of school history lessons in England as it was in Australia or the USA – according to Hilda who went to school in Wales, then studied Law. The actual spot that marks the signing is maintained by the American Bar Association, with little signs and a memorial waxing on about liberty, freedom, rule of law, birthplace of democracy etc… I found it quite a significant place to visit and really enjoyed it. Nearby is a memorial to John
F Kennedy, set in an acre of land that has been given to the USA. Once again, it seemed strange to be walking through an English park in, what is in fact, America. Continuing our walk, we followed another stretch of the Thames – with more lovely riverside houses and boats – then headed back inland and uphill to the Air Force War Memorial. This was built in memory of more than 20,000 RAF and Commonwealth airmen who lost their lives in the 2nd World War and is a beautifully designed building, set in well-maintained lawns and gardens. From the top, up a spiral staircase, there’s a panoramic view over the whole valley, from Heathrow airport at one end to Windsor Castle at the other.

Maidenhead: Journal 5    Oxford

Does life get any better than this? Yesterday I drove to Oxford and spent a heavenly day wandering amidst the dreaming spires, soaking up centuries of learning and literature, history and architecture.

Setting out on my first longish drive on the motorways was with a bit of trepidation, but it turned out to be easy as pie … Oxford’s only about 40 kilometres away and the signposts were excellent all the way. (OK England, I think I can manage any old roundabout now …) I also discovered the very efficient Park and Ride system for getting into the centre of the city. On the outer city ring, there are huge open carparks (free), with frequent comfy double decker buses to run people into the city centre. This is a great way to get a birds-eye view of the city before you actually land right in the middle, and eliminates all the parking hassles.

The dreaming spires of Oxford

Anyway, on to my love affair with Oxford.  Truly, anyone who hasn’t had the good fortune to visit Oxford should put it on the list of ‘places to see before you die’. I’d give anything to be young and brilliant and have the opportunity to study here. I’d fly round the cobbled streets on a bike like all the other students. Naturally the whole city feels like one big, and very old, University. It’s full of interesting and beautiful young people, dashing between Colleges, pubs, bookshops and student digs – along with a fair number of wiser, older, rather conservative academic-looking fellows and their wives… and the odd tourist or two, of course.

William Morris screens at Exeter College

I arrived in perfect time to join a walking tour around some of the Colleges – an excellent way to see and learn. We started at Exeter College, inside the old city (there used to be a city wall in the Middle Ages). Through the gate, into the quadrangle, then across to the magnificent old Dining Hall where all the students in residence at Exeter eat. Spanish chestnut beams, oak tables and huge portraits of principals dating back to at least the 16th Century or earlier. William Morris (of wallpaper and fabric design fame) was a student of Exeter (as was Tolkien) and in the very lovely College chapel there’s a huge Morris tapestry and altar cloths which he made especially for his old alma mater.

The Light of the World – at Keble College

From Exeter, we wandered through some lovely streets and lanes, past the Sheldonian Theatre and Bodleian Library, other museums, colleges and one of the tiniest little pubs I’ve ever seen – teeming with students intent on an ‘Education in Intoxication’ as a chalkboard in the little courtyard invited. Next stop was Keble College, larger and more ‘modern’ than some (only about 300 years old, I think). It was founded by some very pious and sombre Christian men of the time, so has an enormous chapel – more like a Cathedral. The jewel in the crown, though, is a little side chapel housing one of the most famous religious paintings in Britain, ‘The Light of the World’ by William Holman Hunt, who was a student at Keble. This painting took me right back to my very own olden days of church and school … it was the picture in my first prayer book, and must be known to everyone with any shred of Anglican upbringing in them. Amazing to see the real thing. It’s so famous that they had to make a copy to hang in St Pauls -and you have to pay to see the copy!

Our guide told some lovely stories of long ago – including the history of Wadham College. Built by Mrs Dorothy Wadham about 400 years ago in memory of Mr Wadham who’d left his fortune for the purpose, she insisted that the College would only be for the education of young men.  The only woman who could be employed would be a laundress because men were so notoriously incapable of caring for their clothes, she believed. However, stipulated Mrs Wadham, the laundress must be the ugliest woman who could be found, so that she would not distract the students! (Hardly a member of the feminist sisterhood was old Dorothy…)

We ended the walk opposite the Eagle and Bird pub, where Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and other literary giants used to meet regularly and read their writings to one another. No wonder Lord of the Rings, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and other great classics of English literature are such wonderful books … they had the best and greatest critics as they were being written. I had to have a peek inside the pub later and discovered the photos and stories of these great men on the walls.

After the walk, I just wandered up and down every street, dropping into every cloister and quadrangle that I could find.  Also explored the great church of St Mary the Virgin and climbed up the scary little stone staircase in the bell tower to one of the best vantage points over the city. ‘Dreaming spires’ all around. Dropped into the Ashmolean Museum and also saw an exhibition of John Milton at the Bodleian, but didn’t do the whole tour of either building. Might just have to make a return visit some time.

Getting home was just as easy – bus back to the Park and Drive, then straight out onto the A4 and then the M4. Got home right on dusk – perfect!

Maidenhead: Journal 6 Henley-on-Thames

Henley on Thames

Sunday – so a stroll around Henley felt just the ticket. Only about 15 minutes away and a pretty drive through the countryside, Henley is another lovely, famous old town on the Thames. Site of the Royal Regatta every summer, and home to the sport of rowing for centuries. The river is wider at Henley and must be an absolute picture during the boat races.  It’s very much part of the social scene to ‘do’ Henley, along with Ascot, Wimbledon etc… too bad I won’t be here in June and July …..   But I loved it in March, anyway.

Rowing Museum at Henley

Just walked around the town with its pretty houses and shops, then strolled along the river path to the Rowing Museum. Even the architecture of this Museum is interesting and attractive – a big, rectangular wooden and glass structure … maybe designed to look like a boat shed? The displays inside were fantastic. Firstly, a wonderful look at the history of the river since time began.  They’ve found all kinds of ancient artefacts, wooden boats, pottery, stone flints etc in and along the river that tell the story of this waterway since the Stone Age. But there’s also a lot of charming reminders of days not so long ago with all kinds of leisure boats, picnics by the river, angling, stories of the lock-masters and more. I think I’ve developed a special affinity for this part of England (I know … it’s only been 2 weeks …) but I’ve now enjoyed the Thames from many picturesque towns and villages from Windsor to Oxford and still want to see more.

Another major section of the Museum is devoted to the sport of rowing, with excellent interactive displays, photos, letters, trophies, medals …. including information about the achievements of Steve Redgrave (now Sir Steven) who won 5 Gold Medals for the UK in 5 consecutive Olympic Games – and Sir Matthew Pinsent with 4. Inspirational stuff.

And then there’s the Wind in the Willows walk.  Probably designed for children, but equally enjoyable for anyone who’s read the book and loved Mole, Ratty and Mr Toad. You take an audio tape thing with you as you wander through a display of scenes from the book, with charming models of all the little animals just messing around by the river. Hopelessly nostalgic. I loved it!

On the drive back to Maidenhead, I turned off to the village of Hurley, another very pretty section of the river with more boats along the banks than anywhere else I’ve seen – even more than Henley – along with all the ducks, swans and other water birds that belong in this environment.

For the last couple of nights I’ve been hooked on watching TV live from Cruft’s Dog Show in Birmingham. This is the mother of all the dog shows in the world with over 20,000 animals of all shapes, sizes and breeds doing whatever they’ve been bred to do. Some beautiful, some grotesque – just like their owners! Sadly not a Corgi in sight though.  It was actually quite compelling viewing.

Maidenhead: Journal 7 Lingering in London

Maidenhead seemed to survive the storms and gales that battered the rest of Britain on Monday with hardly a hair out of place. It was – still is – a bit blustery, but no problems around Cob Cottage.

Tuesday saw me lingering in London again. It seemed like time to catch up on a bit of culture – given that I’m missing the Adelaide Festival.   So – Adelaide, eat your heart out – in one day in London I toured the National Portrait Gallery, went to a lunchtime concert in St Martin in the Fields, wandered around Covent Garden and caught a matinee performance of ‘Woman in Black’ at the Fortune Theatre.

I’d expected the National Portrait Gallery to be good, but it turned out to be fantastic.  I spent over 2 hours there and could have lingered lots longer. It has the most wonderful collection of paintings and photos of absolutely everybody who’s anybody in English history – all the Royals and their entourages of course, but also all the famous explorers, scientists, naturalists, writers, artists, film stars, musicians. As the blurb says, it’s a walk through English history to do a wander through the gallery. And it’s not only the actual portraits that are fascinating, the captions that tell the stories really capture attention too. Hard to pick favourites because each room seemed to hold another whole collection of treasures. Wish I could remember them all in detail … but I do have enough memory left to know that it was a most enjoyable couple of hours.

Came outside into drizzly rain, but only had to cross the road to St Martin in the Fields (right on the edge of Trafalgar Square). They have free (by donation) lunchtime concerts with outstanding performers 2 or 3 times a week. Yesterday it was a trio from Argentina playing flute, viola and harp. Unfortunately, much of the church is under scaffolding at present, so the ambience wasn’t probably quite what it can be, but the acoustics were great and it felt lovely just being there.

After the concert I had about an hour to fill before the theatre, so walked to Covent Garden and wandered through the market, listened to buskers and stayed under shelter as much as possible. A bit cold and grey .. but hey, it’s London!  And it’s fabulous.   I chose ‘Woman in Black’ partly because there was a Tuesday matinee and I could get a half-price ticket .. but also because I’d only recently read the book. I hadn’t heard of it before, but the play’s been running in London for 19 years! It’s a ghost story and quite scary both to read and to watch. Very well done (of course) in the intimacy of the old Fortune Theatre, a perfect setting for such a dark and sombre tale.

Travelling by train here is easy and comfortable, though does cost the equivalent of Aud$27 for a day’s travel card. You can buy a coffee at the station, take it on the train, sit at a little table and watch the world go by. I commented on how civilized I’ve found the trains to be to a woman in the walking group this morning – and she was amazed. Apparently, the Maidenhead to London line has a very poor reputation, is usually overcrowded, running late and very unpleasant.  Maybe I’ve been lucky … but it certainly beats the trains back home. And it’s so easy to connect up with the Tube when you get into Paddington.

Went walking with the Ramblers again today. A much shorter walk than last time, and the lanes around Knowl Hill were pretty muddy after the recent rain … but it was still great to get out, meet some more people and enjoy more of the countryside. Saw wild primroses and snowdrops along the way too.

Also, I’ve finally got a SIM card and a mobile phone number. The particular SIM I wanted is very popular and hard to get, but they’d just received a new batch in at the local Maidenhead shop, so I can now send and receive texts again.

Maidenhead: Journal 8 (Stratford-upon-Avon)

‘If music be the food of love, play on’ … Wish I could think of a more apt quote for a day in Stratford-upon-Avon, but I like this one, so it will do… 

Yesterday I immersed myself in William Shakespeare’s life story and visited all five of the so-called Shakespeare houses – which include his mother’s family home and the cottage where Anne Hathaway grew up – and the place where our good Will might have romped in the haystack with her before he married her when he was 18, she 26 and 3 months pregnant.   I did actually learn lots more about the man, and about the life of people in Tudor England, and, as always, thoroughly enjoyed it all. 

The day started out misty and the 2-hour drive north didn’t reveal much of the countryside through the fog.  Travelled up the motorway past the general areas of Oxford and Banbury (not a cock-horse in sight) and I found Stratford quite easily.  Fortunately, the mist cleared by mid-morning and I had a lovely wander around this old Warwickshire town, with its many Tudor buildings and shop-fronts, old market place and gentle river. 

Shakespeare’s grave

Somehow, I managed to do my own tour backwards.  Started with the grave, rather than the birthplace – but saw it all anyway.  Set off along the River Avon, past the RSC Theatre and the new Courtyard Theatre, then to Holy Trinity Church where William was buried in 1616. Was good to see his grave and the records of the Parish Register from the 1600s which note his birth and death.  From there, found my way to Hall’s Croft, the very fine Tudor home of Shakespeare’s daughter Susannah and her husband, John Hall, an eminent physician of the day, and probably a good friend of William’s.   Interesting information about medical practices of the time displayed there, along with John Hall’s own case notes. 

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

All the Shakespeare houses are maintained by the Shakespeare Trust – and they do it extremely well.  Even if the furnishings aren’t the exact bits and pieces that the family sat in, slept in, wrote at etc, pieces have been collected that would have been very similar, and they certainly create the period atmosphere.  The low beams and uneven floors, small lead-light windows and plastered walls are all authentic and give a real feel for what it would have been like to live there.  Needless to say, the Shakespeare houses are rather more luxurious than those that many of the townspeople of the time would have lived in.  The Shakespeare family seems to have been well-established and respected, and William himself had the privilege of a good education and exposure to theatre and literature while he was growing up.  

Next stop was Nash’s House & New Place.  Apparently, Shakespeare lived on this site at some time, but the original house has long since gone.  The remaining house is still very charming, and was lived in by Thomas Nash and Shakespeare’s grand-daughter, Elizabeth.  Upstairs there was an exhibition of the Complete Works … many and various editions published through the centuries.

Shakespeare’s birthplace and the house in which he grew up, and lived for a time with Anne Hathaway, is in the centre of town.   It’s a rather crooked place, with little nooks and crannies, stairways, low doorways and lots of beams and timber.  I seemed to catch up with the tourist crowd here … lots of people wandering through the house, the exhibition and the inevitable Gift Shop at the end of the trail.  These shops are very attractive and tempting, but I’ve stayed strong, so don’t have a pen, bookmark, apron, teapot or anything else with Shakespeare’s name on it to remind me of Stratford.  But I’m quite sure I won’t forget it. 

The other houses, Mary Arden’s Farm (Shakespeare’s mother’s home) and Anne Hathaway’s cottage are a mile or two out of town in neighbouring villages.  The Farm is one of those places where they dress up in period costume and live the life … baking, blacksmithing, candle-making, falconry etc, with lots of animals in traditional old barns, hay-sheds and pig-sties.  Quaint and folksy, but a bit dull and damp by the time I got there.  It started to drizzle rain during the afternoon, so Anne Hathaway’s Cottage was also viewed from under a brolly and the garden didn’t look as pretty as it might have in bright sunshine.  Still, worth a visit all the same. 

Warwick Castle

Despite the weather and the time, I decided to whiz over to Warwick (about 10 miles away) to explore the Castle while I was in the vicinity.  Got there about 3.30pm and am very glad I did.  Still had plenty of time to wander through the magnificent State Rooms, Great Hall and living quarters of the aristocracy who owned the Castle in Victorian times.   The Castle actually dates back to the mediaeval era and has all the towers, turrets, moat and dungeons that any good mediaeval castle should have. And it all looked appropriately stark and gloomy in the late foggy afternoon.  The displays inside, however, were very grand and gave a good insight into the life of the Count & Countess and their many royal and noble guests – including Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, Winston Churchill, Gladstone etc.  Magnificent paintings and tapestries on the walls too. 

By 5pm, the sky was quite threatening and I was still at least an hour and a half from home, so after a quick coffee to keep me alert, I wound out of the magnificent castle car-park and grounds and found the M40 to take me back to Maidenhead.  Travelling on a 3-lane expressway at 110kph in rain at dusk isn’t probably the smartest thing for anyone to do, and it wasn’t what you’d call a scenic pleasure drive, but it’s amazing how good these roads are and how the traffic flows … so, no problems whatsoever … and the trusty Scorpio and I arrived very safely back to the Cottage by about 6.30.     Another great day in a great country. 

Maidenhead: Journal 9 A Day in the New Forest

19th March It’s now Wednesday and I’m getting behind with emails and journal. Too much to do, not enough time.  Today is sunny and I should be out walking with the Ramblers, but it’s a case of the spirit being willing but the body definitely too weak to face another hilly walk.

To go back a couple of days …. most of the weekend was cold and drizzly, so I didn’t venture out too far. A bit of local walking and a drive over to the Arts Centre on Sunday to see a new exhibition by a local artist pretty much sums it up. Monday afternoon was spent window-shopping at Marlow (quite classy and probably very expensive) before heading to Flackwell Heath to meet my new guitar teacher. He’s Ed – young and cute. Between gigs in Europe, he lives at home with his family in a road called the Straight Bit!  What a fantastic address … 39 The Straight Bit!  After the lesson and drive home, I felt quite hyped-up, so ended up having a late night with TV and Internet, resulting in booking a Ryanair special deal flight to France for 5 days in April.  I mean, how could I resist a flight to Tours in the Loire Valley for £10 each way.  So I’ll be away from 21-25th April. …. More on that later.

Yesterday (Tuesday) I headed south to the New Forest. With hindsight, it was probably a bit ambitious for one day, but I did get to drive through the Forest, see lots of the ponies and spend a couple of glorious hours at Beaulieu, the grand home of the Earl of Montagu. The drive down and back took over 2 hours each way – and more difficult than either of my previous day trips to Oxford and Stratford. My smugness about coping with motorways and road junctions took a bit of a battering yesterday.  I blew it trying to get past Reading and Basingstoke – both ways!   Oh boy, can they do roundabouts in Basingstoke…. there must be at least a dozen to negotiate before you get onto the next motorway, all with roads leading off in every direction. And then some. However, despite a Cooks Tour in and around the industrial parks and housing estates, I did eventually find the roads I needed every time with no mishaps.

New Forest pony in the car park

The New Forest, I expect, is a lot prettier in spring or summer than it is on a cold wintry day in March. There is a certain beauty in bare trees in the woods, but a lot of the New Forest area is actually open heath and scrubby gorse country, and even in the forest parts it just looked a bit bleak and grey without any sun shining through the trees. The central village of Lyndhurst is quite pretty with an excellent New Forest museum.  Here I learned that the deeds of the Forest date back to William the Conqueror who set aside this piece of land as a royal hunting ground and a place for the locals to enjoy as common ground. The ponies and deer have continued to roam free (apart from being hunted) ever since.

Beaulieu and daffodils

Driving through the Forest in an hour or two didn’t do it justice … it would be much better to take time to walk or cycle through the off-road parts. But that was all the time I had after visiting Beaulieu – pronounced Bew-ley here in Britain. I could probably go on for hours about this place, but will keep it short and say it is a magnificent estate, owned and lived in by the Montagu family since the 1500’s. The Palace where the family still lives is a magnificent stately house (only about one third is open to the public), surrounded by an old moat and beautiful gardens which at present are a sea of daffodils. Portraits of the Earl of Montagu, his family and his ancestors line the walls, dating back to at least Charles II, but you really do get the feeling that this is a family home because there are also portraits and photos of the current Earl, his wife and children doing all the normal things that wealthy landowners and aristocrats do. Wandering through the halls, drawing rooms, library and old Victorian style kitchen also took me back to memories of the castle I lived and worked in in Austria – because it too was a real family home.

Beauieu

The Palace is by no means the only place of interest on the estate. There’s also the old Abbey, now mainly ruins, but gradually being restored. Founded in 1204 in the time of King John, the Cistercian Monks lived there in poverty, chastity and silence for centuries until good old Henry VIII changed the face of religion in England and dissolved the monasteries. Beaulieu is restoring the ruins, and visitors can get an understanding of much of the way of life during the time of the monks and the lay Brothers. The Brothers were mainly illiterate men who devoted their life to the church by doing the practical labour around the monastery.  This allowed the cleverer ones to spend their time in prayer and meditation …. not a bad system if you can manage it.

And then, as well as all this history, and the natural beauty of the house and gardens, Beaulieu is the home of the National Motor Museum (eat your heart out, Birdwood!)  The Beaulieu collection is fantastic. The previous Earl of Montagu began a love affair with cars and the collection has grown to massive dimensions. It seems that most of the ‘famous’ cars in the world are there (eg Donald Campbell’s Bluebird and many others), lots of Formula 1 cars, every kind of vintage model imaginable, some amazing customised vehicles … so much I can’t begin to describe it. I think my men friends (ok, maybe some women too) would be completely overawed.

Another interesting smaller exhibition in the grounds of the estate is about the role of Beaulieu during WWII. It was the home of the Special Executive Operation force … i.e., secret military intelligence, where people learned to be spies. Kym Philby was one of the instructors there. Being in such a strategic location (near Southampton on the Channel), the area around Beaulieu was well-placed for secret military operations and keeping an eye on what Hitler’s planes and ships were doing. It’s amazing how much you learn and how history is brought to life when you are actually in the places where it happened.

Anyway, after all that, and the long drive home – through all those bloody roundabouts in Basingstoke – I was deadbeat when I got back to Cob Cottage.   In bed by 8.30pm.

Maidenhead: Journal 10 Billy Elliott

GOOD FRIDAY:   I’ve decided I want to live for ever … especially if life keeps being as good as this. Last night (Thursday) I saw ‘Billy Elliot’ on stage at the Victoria Palace theatre in London. What a magical show!! The whole evening was wonderful. Went up and back to London by coach and loved cruising around the city seeing so many favourite places through big picture windows … went through Earls Court, South Ken, Cromwell Rd, past Harrods, Hyde Park, Marble Arch, V&A Museum, Natural History Museum … all looked an absolute picture by night and brought back so many memories of living here in the 60’s, also revisiting briefly in 2004. Of course it’s all much glitzier than it was in the 60’s … a truly swinging city now. The big red buses haven’t changed, but the traditional London cabs are now red, yellow, silver-blue etc as well as black.

‘Billy Elliot’ has been described as the ‘best musical in the land’ … and I believe it. The dancing is quite fantastic – especially the two leading boys (Billy & Michael) … both aged about 12 or 13 and brilliant. The old theatre was lovely too.  And such a buzz everywhere. I wasn’t the only one enjoying absolutely everything.

To catch this bus, I had to drive to Woodley, a suburb of Reading about half an hour away. Left home early to make sure I found the bus stop, convenient car park etc., and of course it turned out to be quite easy so I then had to fill in 2 hours in windy Woodley. Weather was icy yesterday, but coffee and newspapers in the Library passed the time comfortably. Driving back to Maidenhead at midnight wasn’t a problem either.

The previous night (Wednesday) I saw ‘Abigail’s Party’ put on by the Maidenhead Players at Norden Farm. Went with Pauline and her friend/partner Bob. Their ritual before going to a play is a quick meal of fish ‘n chips at Bob’s place, then coats on, and out.  Good to have company … wouldn’t rave about the play though.

It’s now Good Friday.  The day started out nice and sunny, so I went for a long walk around Ockwells Park just up the road from the cottage.  I still marvel at the maze of sign-posted public footpaths (walking trails) that go across fields and through woods everywhere you go in this country … well, everywhere I’ve been so far anyway.  But I understand that they actually are everywhere.  Much of the success in keeping them open across private land is due to the constant vigilance and lobbying of the Ramblers.  It would be an incredible loss if they disappeared.

Maidenhead: Journal 11 Hampton Court

A beautiful snowy walk

EASTER SUNDAY:  Home again after another excellent walk and lunch with a small group of the Ramblers.  Only 9 of us ventured out today … partly because it was Easter Day … but mostly because it was SNOWING when we woke up this morning.    I opened the bedroom curtains at about 7.45 and it was fluttering down quite heavily and looked absolutely beautiful.    Continued for about 2 hours.  Just fine snowflakes which mostly melted on the ground, but some little drifts of snow piled up under the trees and in the pots of daffodils and crocus.   So … the big question then was … To Go or Not to Go (on the walk)??    But I couldn’t resist, so rugged up extra warm and was in the car just as David arrived to fix his motorbike in Daryl’s garage.  I left him to it and set off for Hurley to meet the Ramblers.    

Hurley’s an attractive little village on the Thames with stately manor houses, a couple of nice pubs and an old church.  We walked along the river for a mile or so before heading into the woods, around fields, along muddy paths, up hills and eventually back down in a great big circle to the village, then headed to the Rising Sun pub for lunch.   Everyone in the group is so friendly and interesting … good fun and down-to-earth.  And walking is absolutely the best way to see and enjoy the beautiful English countryside.

The earlier part of Easter was quite busy too.  I haven’t stopped since Good Friday evening.  Daryl’s friend David (the one with the motorbike mentioned above) dropped round and invited me for a drink at the White Waltham Aero Club.  The airfield’s only 2-3 miles from here and covered with light planes.  David’s built his own … can’t remember what it’s called … but it’s an old-style 2-seater made of wood with cloth wings.  I met a few of the other guys at the Club and had a great time listening to talk of planes, engines, fuel tanks and motorbikes.  The Aero Club has a kind of 1940’s atmosphere … a cosy, comfortable place where you could imagine Biggles strolling in and taking his goggles off.  And then, after a couple of glasses of red, David and I went on to the Beehive for dinner. 

Hampton Court Palace

On Saturday I took myself to Hampton Court Palace.  The weather was icy with flurries of snow and sleet between bursts of weak wintry sunshine, but despite the cold, getting there and finding a park didn’t present too many difficulties …down the M4, onto the M25, then the A3 & follow the big signboards to the Palace.  The problems came when it was time to drive home… a totally different scenario!   Unfortunately, there are no big brown signs to Cob Cottage, and for the first time so far, I got hopelessly, seriously lost.  Probably wasted a quarter of a tank of fuel driving around in circles for hours trying to find the motorway again – and when I did finally somehow weave my way onto it, I discovered I was heading in the wrong direction.  Couldn’t do anything at that point but drive on towards Portsmouth for about 10 miles until the first exit appeared.  I then had to simply try yet again to retrace my steps.   Mega-stress!!  Ended up asking at 2 service stations before a kind English gent who was paying for his petrol offered to lead me back to the A3 and point me to the right roundabout.  In the end, everything worked out.  …  as it always does somehow. 

Hampton Court Palace is huge, with superb gardens maintained as they would have been in Tudor days.  The Palace itself has grand apartments, huge Victorian kitchens, great halls, corridors, a Chapel Royal, courtyards and fountains.  The walls are covered with enormous paintings and tapestries but overall, it’s fairly sparsely furnished and somehow lacking in the warmth of some of the other castles and grand houses I’ve seen.   For the benefit of the many tourists wandering around, actors in elaborate costumes of the Court of Henry VIII often appear on the scene, just as if they were strolling through the palace, planning the day’s activities etc.  At one stage I arrived in the Great Hall just as the King and his courtiers and musicians were doing some dances of the day.  Henry VIII, Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey and other lords and ladies were all present …  OK, yes, it’s all a bit touristy, but they do it well with original musical instruments, court jester etc … and it was good to have something to watch for a while out of the cold.   

The Great Vine

Despite the icy air, I strolled around the gardens and had a look at the Great Vine, one of Hampton Court’s most famous features.  This vine was planted in 1768 by the celebrated gardener Capability Brown who designed some of the other great gardens of England.  The Vine originally came from a cutting from a French vineyard, and it still produces a good crop of grapes each year, from which they continue to make palace wine. 

And – of course – I had to visit the famous Maze.   Not as big as I’d imagined but it does wind around in confusing circles before you stumble (with a bit of luck) on the centre point.  From there, there’s an easy exit point and I was cold and tired enough by then to make my escape.  (At that stage I didn’t know what lay ahead on the drive home or I might have just opted to stay lost in the maze ….)  

Maidenhead: Journal 12 The Inns of Court

Poor journal … it’s now late Wednesday night and I haven’t written anything since Easter Day.   But if I don’t get to it tonight it will all become a blur.   I’m heading off to the Cotswolds and Bath for a couple of days first thing in the morning.  I’m feeling nicely tired now after another long day in London – with miles and miles of walking – then Book Group tonight at Norden Farm.     

Yesterday (Tuesday) was my second guitar lesson at Flackwell Heath, so I made it a local Thames day with some shopping in Maidenhead, and another look around Cookham before getting to Ed’s place at 4pm.   The Stanley Spencer Art Gallery in Cookham was open this time, so I spent an enjoyable hour or so in there.   The lady on the desk delighted in telling me how many of Spencer’s paintings are in the Art Gallery in Adelaide and at Carrick Hill – others are scattered around the galleries in other states and countries.   Sir Stanley Spencer is quite a renowned artist but I hadn’t heard of him until I came here.  He grew up in Cookham and continued to live there for most of his life.  The gallery is in the old Methodist Church in the village.  He lived in the early part of the 20th Century and painted prolifically.  I really liked the paintings – many reflect his life in the village and scenes along the river.

Today’s trip to London was a chance to do another Old London Walk.  This time I chose the one that explored the Inns of Court and the British legal system.  These Inns are a bit like the Colleges of Oxford or Cambridge – every British barrister has to join one of the four Inns (Grays, Lincoln, Inner Temple or Middle Temple).  They date back to mediaeval times.  In the past the legal eagles actually lived and studied in the Inns. Now, with Law Schools scattered through the Universities around England and Scotland, they only join the Inns when they become ‘apprenticed’ (articled?) in legal chambers and pass the relevant exams to become a barrister.   The Inns are beautiful old buildings, now mostly full of legal offices, but they all have a Chapel, a great Hall and a Library – and they’re right in the heart of London, tucked away in cloisters and courtyards so you could easily miss all this history and tradition if you didn’t venture off the busy main London streets.  The guide was a wealth of information about the legal system, the characters, the wigs and gowns and all the historical colour that surrounds the profession.  The walk finished at the Royal Courts of Justice – unfortunately just too late to see any sessions in the courtrooms – but the building itself is magnificent.  She described it as the second most wonderful Gothic building in London, the first being the Houses of Parliament at Westminster.   One of the special sights was the Temple Church  – originally the church of the Knights Templar from the Middle Ages and one of the featured places in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. 

After wallowing in history all morning, I took myself back to the commerce and capitalism of modern-day Oxford Street to have a look around the shops during the afternoon.   Not really sure why …. I didn’t buy anything and didn’t really enjoy the hustle and bustle … but it seemed like something I should do while in London.  Since I’m getting by with my fairly limited wardrobe (20kg worth of luggage that I could bring over). I’ve decided the same old jeans and jumpers can last another few weeks. 

The Book Group tonight was excellent once again.  A really stimulating discussion and a great group of women.  I’m sorry I’ll only be here for one more meeting.  This month’s book was by Liam Browne: ‘The Emigrant’s Farewell’.  Most people enjoyed it … I was less enthusiastic. 

So, tomorrow it’s off to the Cotswolds.  I have a coffee date at Bourton-on-the-Water at 10.30am so will have to get organised early for what will probably be a 2-hour drive.   Very much looking forward to seeing this part of the country ….

Maidenhead: Journal 13 The Cotswolds and Bath

Right … where was I?  Feels like a month since I wrote this diary, but I was actually only away for 3 days.  Great days they were too ….

Set off on Thursday morning for the Cotswolds in beautiful sunshine.  Couldn’t have picked a better day to see this part of the world … clear blue skies with little fluffy white clouds and absolutely picture-postcard country everywhere.   The drive up was easy – just under 2 hours to Bourton-on-the-Water where I met Merv as planned.  What a picturesque little village!   The gentle Windrush River flows under tiny arched bridges through the centre of the town, with beautiful little stone cottages, shops, tea-rooms and inns on either side.  It’s quaint and touristy, but at this time of the year there were very few cars and coaches in the car park so we saw it at its absolute picture-perfectness.   After coffee in a pleasant little tea-room, we picked up a walking trail map from the Tourist Centre and set off for a glorious circular walk through the next most well-known villages in the area, Upper and Lower Slaughter,  then across the Cotswolds fields past farms and manor houses all made from the honey-coloured stone that the area is famous for.  All the houses throughout the Cotswolds are creamy-gold with weathered slate roofs, pretty dolls-house gardens, dormer windows and attics.   You couldn’t imagine prettier villages if you tried.  Apparently even Charles and Camilla live somewhere nearby at Highgrove …

The walk took about 3 hours – so then we headed to the Black Horse Inn at nearby Naunton for a ploughman’s lunch.   Idyllic!   Despite the warmth of the day, there was a cheery fire in the big old fireplace and a couple of dogs by the bar.  One of them, a gentle black Labrador, rested her head on my lap for quite some time while I ate my crusty bread, delicious runny cheese and pickled onions. I love this about England. 

Merv had to head off after lunch, so I cruised back to Bourton-on-the-Water to explore the village a bit more.  Maybe it was the mood of the day, but the shops here are infinitely more enjoyable than those in Oxford Street, London.  So resistance was impossible.  Oh well … a slightly lighter bank balance and heavier bags to fly home with.

When I finally drove out of Bourton I had no fixed plans – just headed south towards Bath.  Had hoped to find a B&B along the way but, despite a couple of small off-road detours to look at other villages, no cosy little B&Bs were visible, so I decided to stop at Tetbury about 5.30pm.   Tetbury’s an attractive old market town with a main street full of timeless old buildings and tiny shops – mostly antique shops, but also delicious chocolatiers, pastry shops and classy dress shops.  I checked in at the Priory Inn, a nice but fairly standard hotel/motel, then wandered around the town before dusk took over.  The Georgian Gothic church was rather beautiful in the evening light and I enjoyed a stroll around inside all alone until the Rector and his dog arrived to lock up.  A friendly English vicar sort of chap he was.   

Had intended having another look around Tetbury in the morning but it was drizzling quite heavily and the sky was leaden.  After such a perfect sunny day yesterday, the difference was incredible.  But, hey, this is England. Anyway, no point in hanging around, so I drove on to Bath.  Finding the way into this city is tricky.  It’s built on hills (like the 7 hills of Rome) so the roads all wind up, down and around…. and I ended up almost in the city centre, before somehow instinctively (rather than by good management or map-reading) finding the right road to the Park’n Ride carpark.    This kind of driving is always a bit stressful … not having a clue where I’m going, not being able to stop because there’s simply nowhere to pull over, not having anyone to read the directions .. and all in pouring rain!   But I do still love solo travelling. I get so carried away with all the sights and experiences and just revel in being totally self-indulgent.  

Bath was as I’d imagined it.   Gracious, gentile and sophisticated.  It has thousands of heritage-listed buildings.  In fact, the whole town has UNESCO World Heritage status, and the lovely old terraces sweep gracefully around in long curving streets.   The origins of the city date back to the Roman days, but Bath has continued as a favoured place for English society through the centuries.  

Bath

First port of call for me had to be the famous Roman baths and temple ruins.  We’ve all seen photos of the Great Bath, but I hadn’t realised what a big complex the whole place was – and still is.  There are passages and underground chambers showing the archaeological treasures that have been discovered, as well as the well-preserved ruins of the temple and the incredible Roman engineering ingenuity for pumping the water from the original sacred spring.  In some ways, for me, it was like being back in Greece and Turkey again with so many ancient artefacts and ruins (though I am aware that these are Roman.)   

My Great British Heritage pass also gave me free entry to the Fashion Museum in Bath, so I pushed uphill against the wind (it was still raining intermittently too) to find this next attraction.   I guess it was the kind of museum that could have been anywhere (i.e., not necessarily special to Bath) but it did have an excellent collection of fashion through the ages, including some exquisite Georgian, Regency and Victorian gowns, right through to more contemporary haute couture designs.  One has to wonder how aristocratic women in days gone by survived in those corsets, bustles and hoops.  I was quite thankful for my jeans.

Jacob’s Ladder, Bath Abbey

Another gem in Bath is Bath Abbey.  No free entry here – all the big churches and cathedrals make sure you give your ‘donation’ as you enter – but obviously the maintenance costs must be enormous, so you don’t begrudge a few pounds here and there.  I just think it would be more honest all round if they simply charged an entry fee and issued tickets.   That aside, the Abbey was splendid.  There are apparently almost as many tombstones and commemorative wall plaques in here as in Westminster Abbey, many going back several centuries, of course.  Also, Jacob’s Ladder, with statues of angels climbing and descending, runs up the spire of the Abbey. I’d heard of Jacobs Ladder somewhere in the past – also of fallen angels – but hadn’t realised this is where it is.   Must look it up on Google sometime to find its origin and meaning. 

Now even travellers’ magic has to have its ups and downs I expect.  So, because it was such a wet and cold day, I know I didn’t see Bath at its best, or do the city justice by spending only part of one day there.  And, with hindsight, I now regret I didn’t do the guided tour of the Jane Austen Centre.  I got as far as the little shop, filled with all sorts of Austen memorabilia, books etc, but by then just felt I couldn’t take in any more for one day.   So I headed back to the Park ‘n Ride to get the car, with the aim of getting out of the city before rush hour.   Wrong!!   Got there to discover that – for the second time since I’ve been in England – I’d left the lights on all day and had a totally flat battery.  Grrrrr!!!!!   Anyway, once again, had to call on the roadside assistance people to come and charge me up.   Finally headed out of the car park after 5pm and – of course – hit all the peak-hour traffic winding through the streets.  At least the mechanic had given me very clear directions to the A36 for which I was extremely grateful, as it isn’t the easiest city to navigate.  

I’d been tossing up whether to head west towards the Cheddar Gorge or south to Glastonbury for the next part of this little journey, but with the delay in getting out of Bath, and continuing drizzly rain, in the end I opted for neither and just drove down towards Warminster, in order to visit Longleat the next day.  One of the great things about England is that it really doesn’t matter where you go, you’ll see something wonderful.   And this time I struck it lucky again …  pulled into a Travelodge motel at a big road junction, and had the nerve to ask if they knew of any B&Bs close by.   The lovely girl at reception gave me a card with a list of places on it and I found Eden Vale Farm in Bickerton village about half a mile away.    This turned out to be an absolute delight … an old, old farmhouse and mill nestled in a valley with free range ponies, dogs, hens and cats wandering round the old farm buildings.   My room was upstairs in the mill with a beautiful outlook over the garden of daffodils and the stream below.  A delicious little nest to rest in after a long day. I tucked in under the cosy covers with a pile of Country Life, Horse and Hounds and similar magazines and once again, thanked the Goddess or whoever’s looking after me.  

Next morning there was a farm-cooked breakfast in a delightful sunny room, and a magnificent peacock preening himself in the daffodils just outside the window.  He came right over to the window and I thought he must have liked the look of me … but was disillusioned when the farmer told me he likes looking at his own reflection in the glass!!   Typical male! 

Longleat

I went for a bit of a walk around the farm before setting off on the road again – this time only a few miles away to Longleat, the grand home of the Marquess of Bath.   Longleat was one of the first of the English stately homes to be opened to the public to help to pay off massive taxation debts and maintenance costs after the war.  It’s now a mix between Very Grand Manor and commercial safari park, pets’ playground and family fun park.  I gave Postman Pat’s village etc a miss, but very much enjoyed going through the 16th Century house and beautiful gardens.  The rooms are sumptuous, with ornate gilded ceilings, magnificent tapestries and paintings and so much splendour you just gasp at each room.  The current Lord Bath appears to be a bit of a maverick.  Lots of photos and paintings of him and the family adorn the rooms … he has long hair, brightly coloured cardigans, paints, writes books and generally seems to enjoy his life of privilege and heritage.  

The weather was still fairly miserable, so once again I had to choose between going a bit further afield and seeing Stourhead, one of the most famous British gardens and parks – or heading more in the direction of home and just settling for visiting Avebury.   I opted for Avebury and am glad I did.  Stourhead may have to wait till my next visit to England.  And some sunshine. 

Avebury is on the Salisbury plain, as is Stonehenge, but is less visited than its more famous neighbour according to the guide books.   However, I was absolutely thrilled with it.  To quote Lonely Planet: ‘Avebury is an awe-inspiring and much-less-visited prehistoric sight.  Its massive stone circle envelopes the pretty village of the same name and sweeps across the surrounding fields into a complex of ceremonial sites, ancient avenues and burial chambers’.   The stone circle dates from about 2500BC – that is, over 4000 years ago.  An interesting time chart in the adjoining museum indicates that the only other traces of human existence from that time have been discovered in Australia … so the stones I saw at Avebury pre-date all other known construction … much earlier than the Mayans, Egyptians, Chinese and everyone else except the Australian Aborigines. 

Stones at Avebury

In the misty rain and cold, the huge stones had a very spiritual feel about them.  The Avebury stones are not fenced off like the ones at Stonehenge and it’s quite eerie treading where people must have trodden so many thousands of years ago.   It’s hard to imagine what the Roman settlers and others who came to England in later times must have thought when they saw these massive stones standing in the fields in a clearly circular human-made formation.   The area has only really been properly preserved since the 1930’s – many of the stones had been deliberately buried in mediaeval times when fear of paganism was strong, and others had been used for building purposes over the centuries.  So, many of the remaining stones had to be re-erected.   It’s quite a magical place and I spent quite a while walking around the fields in cold, driving rain because I enjoyed it so much.

Back in the car, soaking wet but quite content, all I wanted was to head for home – two hours away along the M4.   It was lovely to get back to the cottage and have a quiet Saturday night.  

Maidenhead: Journal 14 Cliveden

Walking, walking, walking … three days in a row already, and then probably out with the Ramblers again tomorrow.  I missed the last Ramblers’ outing on Sunday because it was the morning after I got back from the trip away and I felt like having a sleep-in.   However, after spending most of the day at home doing nothing, I decided to take myself out for a stroll and ended up walking miles … around Ockwells Park and along roads and lanes that looked as if they led somewhere, but turned out to just connect up with more lanes and other footpaths across fields.  It was actually quite a good walk – just rather longer than planned.  

The view from Cliveden

Anyway, despite tired legs, the next day (Monday) seemed a good time to check out Cliveden, the stately home right on Maidenhead’s doorstep.  Originally built in the 1600’s, Cliveden is now owned by the National Trust, but was the home of the rich and famous Astors during most of the 20th Century.    The American billionaire William Waldorf Astor bought it in the late 1800s (I think), then gave it as a wedding present to his son William and wife Nancy.    Nancy Astor went on to become the first woman to have a seat in the British Parliament, but she was also a famous hostess and Cliveden was the absolutely top place for social parties and events during the Astors’ time there.   It’s been said that most of the important decisions of state, political deals, scandals and intrigues took place at Cliveden … even the Profumo/Christine Keeler affair happened there.   It’s a magnificent property with many acres of beautiful gardens and woods, right on the Thames.  The house is enormous and now operates as a very grand hotel – supposedly one of the best in Britain – so you can only go into part of it at certain times on guided tours.  Visitors mostly visit Cliveden just to walk in the gardens and enjoy the property – which is what I did.   Walked miles…  

I’m finding it impossible to remember all the detail of the history of all these places, so I don’t really even try too hard any more.  I just read all the brochures and signs and enjoy the atmosphere of whatever I’m looking at in the ‘here and now’ and then take away whatever images and memories hang around in the brain.  There are always fascinating stories about Duke Someone-or-other, Lord Someone-else, HRH etc … but it’s almost like reading a romantic novel … you enjoy it at the time, then move on to the next one.   

This afternoon (Tuesday) I went for another excellent walk with Hilda and Dora through yet another beautiful part of the countryside only minutes outside Maidenhead, in the general vicinity of Littlewick Green with some gorgeous country lanes, superb houses, farms, inns and thatched cottages.  Some of the ‘Midsomer Murder’ episodes have been filmed in and around the common – and it’s easy to see why.   We also passed a stately mansion in which Dora (who’s Dutch) informed us Queen Wilhelmina of Holland was sheltered during WW2 when the Germans occupied Holland.   Lucky Wilhelmina is all I can say.  

Tonight, I’m off to Norden Farm to see ‘The Complete Works of Shakespeare’.   It played to packed houses in the West End for ages, is now on for one night in Maidenhead – and it’s supposed to be hilarious.   

Maidenhead: Journal 15 The First Emporer Exhibition, British Museum

Talk about traveller’s luck … I had it in spades yesterday (Thursday).   Life’s good!  But I’ll get to that in a minute. Firstly, must bring this poor neglected journal up to date …  On Tuesday night I saw the ‘Complete Works of William Shakespeare’ at Nordern Farm – 37 plays in 97 minutes.  If it hasn’t already appeared at the Adelaide Fringe, it probably will some time …. a crazy, roller-coaster kind of madness done by 3 guys with the same off-beat humour as the 3 Canadians team who have performed regularly at the Fringe.   Good fun, but probably not worth the $30 that I paid to see it. 

Then on Wednesday morning was another Ramblers walk, this time through Burnham Beeches, a large area of woods and open spaces (540 acres/ 22 hectares) that’s now preserved and managed by the City of London as a natural environment for the trees, birds and native animals, and a parkland for the public.  The information in the brochure says that the area has been wooded since the Ice Age.  The Domesday Book (Britain’s very earliest survey of land ownership) records Burnham Parish as having ‘woodland enough to feed 600 swine’.   There are some very ancient trees still protected and growing there, and it’s a lovely area to walk in.  Once again there was an extremely pleasant group of walkers … and I’m getting to be almost one of the crowd.  Everyone’s very friendly and there’s now quite a bit of interest in the idea of home exchanging within the East Berkshire Ramblers group.  

And so to yesterday….   I’d decided before I left Adelaide that one of the things I wanted to do while I was here was see ‘The First Emperor’ exhibition at the British Museum.  It opened late last year and finishes on 6th April.  But I didn’t get round to booking on-line straight away as I should have.  Nor did I get round to phoning as soon as I arrived here.  So, with the last days rapidly looming, I decided earlier this week that I’d go up to London on Thursday to see it.  But – too late – I found that all pre-booking sales had closed.  I learned via the recorded voice message that the Museum was still releasing 500 timed tickets each morning for the remaining days … also that it would be advisable to get in early to get one.   The earliest arrival I could manage from Maidenhead to the nearest tube station (on an off-peak rail ticket) was 10.20am … but I was still fairly confident they wouldn’t have sold 500 by then.  Just how wrong and naïve can a person be!   They’d completely sold out by the time I got there and hundreds of people were being turned away.  I learned that the queues were starting every morning at about 5.30am.   I tried asking at every ticket counter, information desk etc over the next hour on the off-chance that they might be releasing more tickets, or there were cancellations or something … but absolutely no show.   Oh well … serves me right for not getting organised in time.  So I went and had an expensive coffee at the Museum café and just watched the huge crowds milling around.   Thousands of people visit the British Museum every day to see the general exhibits – and there have been many millions through to see the First Emperor exhibition over the past few months.   Having decided on my alternative options for filling in the day, I went back to the Ticket Sales desk to try one last time for a cancellation.  I was walking away, disappointed again, when a woman came over to me and asked if I happened to be trying to get one ticket?   Was I ever!!   Turns out that she and her friends had booked 4, but one member of the party hadn’t been able to come so they had a spare one – timed for entry in 20 minutes time!!!!    I’ve never forked out £13 so quickly.   (She probably could have got $100 for it out on the front steps … there were so many people keen to get in.)     

And after all that, was it worth it?   ABSOLUTELY!   The exhibition told the story of the First Emperor of China – born in 259BC.  He became the King of Qin (pronounced Chin, and from where China got its westernised name).  He went on to conquer all the warring states around Qin, proclaiming himself the First August Divine Emperor, and formed great armies to spread his control and government across all of China, with the development of systems of law and bureaucracy, standardised currency, weights and measures, a universal written script and the building of great walls, canals and roads.  He also built over 270 palaces in Xianyang as a display of his power and then had a massive tomb complex constructed so that he could continue to rule in the afterlife. 

In 1974, a farmer digging near the tomb area found a terracotta head, and since then archaeologists have found over 7000 terracotta soldiers in pits guarding the tomb … also bronze chariots, birds, horses and other countless wonders in what is now one of the world’s most important archaeological sites.  They’re still finding great treasures and they haven’t even excavated the actual tomb. 

The exhibition had a fantastic display of the terracotta soldiers, guards, officials and animals – as well as coins, sacred bells, jewellery, pots, weights and measures and much, much more.  There were hundreds of people inside this central section of the Museum but everyone was so overawed that the crowd moved through quite calmly and steadily.  I know some people have seen the terracotta army in situ in China … but this exhibition was so well displayed and so fascinating that I feel no need or desire to ever go to Xianyang. 

Coming back into the world outside was helped by remembering that I was in London.   After the First Emperor, I didn’t feel like seeing any more of the British Museum collection today, so just wandered through the streets of Bloomsbury for a while where the famous literary set lived and wrote in the 1920s and 30s.  Then made my way by tube to the Royal Albert Hall.   I remember going to a concert there in the heady days of the 60’s but wanted to now do a tour of the Hall and learn more about it (like Bron and I did at Carnegie Hall in New York in 2004).   

Royal Albert Hall

Just missed the 2.30 tour, so filled in an hour having a look at Kensington Gardens and the massively ornate gilded Prince Albert Memorial across the road.  Queen Victoria had this erected when her beloved Bertie died. It’s completely over the top, but rather beautiful in a memorial kind of way.   Anyway, back to the Hall for the 3.30 tour and a great little tour group of only 4.   I then fell in love once again with yet another wonderful landmark in this great city.  Royal Albert Hall is superb.  I’d say that a tour of this place is a must if you’re visiting London.   There was a rehearsal in progress so we sat in the box directly next to the Royal Box and watched Ali Campbell and his band perform a few numbers while the lighting and sound techs set up for the evening performance.  (Ali Campbell, it turns out, was the lead singer in UB40 – he’s recently made a solo album.)   We were taken right through the Hall, including the Royal waiting room where Her Majesty meets the stars, and heard some delightful stories of performances and behind the scenes.  We also went up to the top gallery where you pay peanuts (relatively-speaking) to stand at the rail to watch the show way down below – exactly as I did back in 1965.    

It’s now British Summer Time over here, so daylight lasts much longer, but that doesn’t mean the museums etc stay open any longer.  So, after leaving Royal Albert Hall there wasn’t time to see much more – and besides, I was getting a bit weary after another long day of taking in wonderful experiences.  However, on the way back to the tube station I had to pass the Victoria and Albert Museum and realised there was half an hour to go before it closed.  Of course ‘doing’ the V&A in 30 mins must be a like an ant trying to run a marathon … but even if our ant only covered a few metres, he’d probably still feel like he’d given it a go … and that’s what I did.   I saw the Sculpture Gallery and enjoyed a quick look around the first couple of rooms I came to at random – religious icons from the 1500s in Europe (actually quite beautiful) and an exhibition of Mughal India.  Best part of this was seeing a number of items from Tipu Sultan’s palace just out of Mysore which we visited with the children in 1986.   Ben probably remembers it well.    

After all this I made my way back to Paddington to catch the train home to Maidenhead – and walked happily home from the station in the early, and quite warm, twilight.     It was 17 degrees here today – lovely! 

Maidenhead: Journal 16 A Walk in the Snow

The things you do on the other side of the world …. who would believe that I got up at 5.30am on a cold, dark Sunday morning to go on the annual East Berks Ramblers Dawn Walk?   But I did. And am I glad?  You bet!!

Snowy walk

Just as we were all pulling in to the Maidenhead Town Hall car park at 6am, it started to snow.  And it continued to snow all morning, so the walk turned out to be like rambling though fairyland.   We set out along the river in the misty grey dawn with heavy snowflakes falling, and as daylight grew the snow continued to build up everywhere – on the trees, the houses, the fields – and on us.  There must have been at least 2-3 inches or more on the ground as we tramped across a completely white world.   There was no-one else around at that time of the morning – just 11 of us walkers and the odd horse or two that pranced away as we rambled by.  It was bitterly cold taking gloves off to take photos, but I blazed away anyway because it was all so beautiful.  

The walk went across the Jubilee River to Taplow, a pretty village at any time, but extremely picturesque under snow.  I learned about Tapa’s Tump too … the burial mound of one of the early Anglo-Saxon kings (King Tapa) from about 600AD.  It was excavated in the late 1800’s and the findings from the tomb are now in the British Museum.  Of course some of us climbed up onto the mound – and the view across the fields and the village was like an English Christmas card.  White, snowy and beautiful.

Back in Maidenhead about 3 hours later, 7 of the group went to Dave’s Place for a hearty breakfast and a very welcome hot mug of tea.  Dave’s Place is a kind of workmens’ café … the ideal venue for tea and toast when you can hardly feel your fingers, your nose is running and snow is dripping off everything.   It was so good to warm up again.  

Apart from this snowy adventure, there’s not much else to record since last time. Friday night I went out for dinner with Pauline to Norden Farm, and on Saturday did some shopping in Maidenhead, went to the Library, picked up more cash etc … all the hum-drum stuff of life that has to happen wherever you are.  I also finally booked accommodation via the Internet in France … so am now feeling fairly organised for the coming weeks. 

Maidenhead: Journal 17 Blenheim Palace

It’s now Wednesday, a glorious day with bright sunshine.  Part of me knows I should be out on today’s walk with the Ramblers – but the other part decided that a 6-mile walk in hilly country was not really what I felt like today.   So here I am, having a day off from sight-seeing and socialising, just enjoying catching my breath again.  Even in England a girl needs a day or two to herself now and then.

On Monday I had several phone calls during the day from Ed trying to work out whether he could fit my guitar lesson in or not.  It took him four calls to decide he wouldn’t be able to make it – by which time it was early afternoon and I could have planned something else if I’d known.  Luckily he’s sweet (about 25!) and he calls me darlin’ all the time, so I’ve forgiven him … but why anyone would get involved with a musician I don’t know.  They’re so laid-back and disorganised.  

Brunel’s bridge, Maidenhead

Anyway, with the afternoon free, it seemed a perfect opportunity to retrace some of the steps of Sunday’s Dawn Walk and see more of the river by daylight – in sunshine instead of snow.  I started at Boulter’s Lock in the free carpark (parking’s always a problem here) and walked along the Thames Path to the Maidenhead Bridge, crossed the river and the road, and strolled along the other side to the railway bridge.  This bridge was designed by the great engineer Brunel, built in 1838, and still remains an engineering wonder with the longest and flattest spans of single brick arches anywhere in the world.  I’m no engineer, but even I can see that it’s quite impressive.  The bridge was needed for the railway line from London to Bristol in the great days of shipping in the 19th Century.  Another of Brunel’s masterpieces, the huge steamship Great Britain, built in 1843 has been restored and is moored in Bristol.  (Haven’t been there yet, but keep hearing about it). 

Monday’s walk continued on past some of Maidenhead’s loveliest houses, many of which have a conservatory or their own private piece of carefully manicured lawn and garden right on the riverfront with boat moorings or a boat-house.  No wonder Maidenhead’s been described as part of the stockbroker belt.  I’ve also previously noticed the cars parked in the railway station car park in the mornings … lots of Mercs, Audis, Jaguars, and at least one Alfa Romeo.  There’s still plenty of money around in some parts of England, that’s for sure. 

Finished the walk back at Boulters Lock with an ice-cream on Ray Mill Island just behind the lock, watching ducks, geese and squirrels pecking away at picnic crumbs.  Then I watched one of the long, narrow riverboats actually going through the lock.  They’re so different from the squat, square River Murray houseboats, but would be just as much fun to hire and cruise along the river in. 

I’d phoned David earlier in the day to see if he was going to the Jolly Woodman that evening to the Monday night jazz session.  Turned out he had a cold and wasn’t feeling up to it, but he contacted Jim, another friend of his and Daryl’s– and a little later Jim phoned to ask me to come along with him and his wife.  We enjoyed a rollicking night of trad jazz with some of their friends in another great little pub. 

Blenheim Palace

Yesterday (Tuesday) I took myself up to Woodstock, near Oxford, to see the wonders of Blenheim Palace, home of the Churchill family and the Duke of Marlborough.   Now … even though all the other palaces and stately homes I’ve seen so far have been stunning, Blenheim, I think, outdoes them all.  How can I describe it without using all the same old words over and over again?   Enormous, magnificent, rich, splendid, mind-blowing, totally awesome. Blenheim is a UNESCO World Heritage site and quite an amazing place.   Modelled on Versailles in France (designed by the same architect, I think), many of its treasures actually came from that great palace after one of the French/English wars.  Originally the land was given to Sir John Churchill by Queen Anne after his defeat of Louis XIV and his army at the Battle of Blenheim – apparently one of the greatest military battles in history.  He became the 1st Duke of Marlborough, and the Palace and the title has been handed down over the centuries.  The current Duke is the 11th –he and his family still live there.  Winston Churchill was the son of a second son, so didn’t inherit the title, but he was born and grew up there and followed a distinguished life and career similar to the first Duke of Marlborough.   The attractions of Blenheim, therefore, are two-fold … on the one hand there’s all the history and magnificence of the house and its furnishings, and the life of the Marlboroughs since the mid-1700s … and on the other there’s the fascinating story of the life and times of Sir Winston – his childhood, school-days, early military career, political achievements and of course his leadership of Britain during WWII.    He was born at Blenheim in 1874.  I saw the very bed where the event occurred.   At the end of the day, I also called into the Bladon village churchyard where he and other members of the family are buried. 

Blenheiim Cascades

Before I set out, I’d thought that I might spend half a day at Blenheim and then a few hours back in Oxford, but Blenheim is so huge and so wonderful I decided not to hurry the visit and ended up being there most of the day.  The grounds of the estate are enormous and I only walked around a small part, but I did visit the very beautiful Secret Garden, the Water Gardens and the Lakeside Walk which follows a path around the huge man-made lake, stream and cascade waterfall.  The gardens were designed and created by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown who was responsible for many of the famous gardens of England.   The task of actually creating a huge lake is mind-boggling, but with enough labourers I guess anything’s possible.  And it is really stunning. 

It would have been good to have time to drop in to some of the other picturesque villages around this part of the country.  As you drive around, you get little peeks down country lanes to thatched cottages, village greens, old pubs and crooked little houses, but the only way to really appreciate them is to walk and explore.  However, after being on my feet all day at Blenheim – and jazz in the pub on Monday night – I was feeling quite tired, so headed for home with mind and spirits buzzing yet again. 

(Later … still Wednesday, but I finally couldn’t resist the sunshine outside, so walked into Maidenhead to the Library.  That’s at least another couple of hours walking altogether, so I feel another early night coming on!)      

Maidenhead: Journal 18 Sissinghurst

Thursday 10th Excellent weather for a walk once again, and I picked Dora up as planned.  Hilda has her kids at home for half-term school holidays at present, so it was just the two oldies setting out today … hope I’m half as fit as Dora when I’m her age.   We walked a very small section of Windsor Great Park today, the enormous royal estate adjacent to Windsor Castle.   It’s so big it has houses, villages, farms, even a school within its grounds … all facilities for the people who work on the estate or those with royal connections.   The Park is open to the public for walking, cycling and horse-riding and there are indeed some lovely walks and bridle paths.   On our mini 2-3 hour ramble we came across magnificent statues of QE2 and George III, both placed on high vantage points with views over the park and down to the Castle, miles away.    I still haven’t visited the Castle itself but will before I leave.

Friday 11th Pauline came with me today for a whole day out in Kent.   Sissinghurst, the home and garden of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson, has been on my ‘must-see’ list for ages.  Today was the day.   We set off at 9am for the 2-hour drive.  With maps and computer print-outs Pauline did a sterling job of navigating, and we found our way along the motorways, A-roads, and finally the smaller country roads through and around Kent. 

Sissinghurst Towers

Sissinghurst turned out to be as lovely as I’d imagined from books and TV.  Although the garden will probably be at its peak in another month or so, it was still full of colour, charm and lovely design at this time of the year with its old brick walls, hidden statues, brick pathways, masses of tulips – which I could identify – and all kinds of other flowers that I couldn’t. 

Sissinghurst from the tower

Vita and Harold had an extremely unconventional relationship.  Devoted to each other throughout their long marriage, and hugely successful with their writing, publishing, diplomatic and political careers, they also both pursued their own passionate same-sex affairs while living at and creating Sissinghurst.   Vita’s best-known lover was Virginia Woolfe … but there were others whom she probably entertained in her study and writing room in one of the towers in what was also their very unconventional home.  Sissinghurst was almost a ruin when they bought it in the 1930’s. There had been various buildings on the site since the 12th Century, but when Vita fell in love with the property, all that was left were two tall towers – like castle turrets – a separate long house across a central courtyard and a couple of other older cottages, barns and ruined oasthouses for drying and fermenting hops – there are lots of these around Kent.   So, between them, Vita and Harold set about transforming this dilapidated estate into the beautiful and famous garden that it is today.   Their home remained a collection of rooms in separate buildings, but they would join each other and their two sons (surprise, surprise!) for meals and family time in the main long house.   The boys’ bedrooms were actually in a separate little cottage, but as they were probably away at boarding school most of their lives, they obviously coped.   Only a part of the house is now open for public viewing (the remaining son still lives there), and Vita’s writing room can be visited by climbing up the stone spiral staircase in the turret.  Oh what I’d give to have a study like it … warm, comfortable, filled with books, a worn old desk and lots of photos and personal treasures, and best of all … her very own place.   Definitely a “A Room of One’s Own”.  She believed passionately that for women to achieve anything in life they need their own space, which most women – certainly in her day – didn’t ever get. 

I’m usually quite happy to explore all these beautiful places by myself, and generally float along in a kind of reverie and awe, but it was really nice to have company today and to share the pleasure of all the sights and stories.  Pauline and I had no fixed plans after Sissinghurst, but with plenty of choices of other castles, stately homes, abbeys and gardens in Kent, we finally settled on Hever Castle as our next port of call – partly because she hadn’t ever been there, and partly because it was also covered by my Great British Heritage Pass.   

Hever Castle, birthplace of Anne Bolyn

700-year-old Hever Castle, near Tunbridge Wells, is the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, 2nd wife of Henry VIII and mother of Elizabeth 1.  It’s a very pretty, double-moated square castle, smaller than most of the others I’ve seen, and splendidly decorated inside with the most amazing wood carving, panelling and furniture, plus paintings, tapestries and all the other trimmings that all good castles need.   Unlike some castles, though, it’s built in a small valley rather than on the highest peak, and is surrounded by rolling lawns, beautiful trees, gardens and ponds.  Pauline and I both decided that everything about Hever is tasteful and classy.     The afternoon sunshine probably helped to make it all so attractive, but we loved exploring inside, then walking around the grounds.   It wasn’t too crowded and, being a bit smaller than some, it was easier to feel you could actually live there.  

The Castle was bought by William Waldorf Astor in about 1903 (after he’d also bought Cliveden, near Maidenhead), and he must have spent a few million on restoring it and building a Tudor village kind of set-up adjoining the Castle to accommodate his extra house guests.    Although this might sound a bit contrived, it actually looks extremely charming and totally in keeping with the style and architecture of the Castle itself.   Nothing brash or glitzy-American about it.   The ‘village’ now functions as a very fine hotel and is often used for weddings and other private functions. You can even get married in the Castle if you want … at some enormous cost.  

Hever has mazes, a rowing lake, pavilions, tea-rooms and, of course, the ubiquitous Gift Shoppe.  But even all these are subtle, well-designed and, consequently, more tempting.  We enjoyed watching children trying to negotiate the Water Maze, but opted for the more traditional planted one ourselves and found our way in and out without too many false turns.   A bit like our navigation on the roads…   Driving down country roads through the afternoon in glorious sunshine was truly lovely and we only missed a few turn-offs and had to retrace our steps once or twice.   I guess all the English Counties have their own appeal and character, but I have to say I was very taken with Kent.    Went though Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells in the course of the day – both look to be very nice towns – but it was the villages, farms, oasthouses, rolling hills and downs and occasional sweeping views that made it all so beautiful.  We also stopped along the way to have a look over the ruins of Bayham Abbey, an old monastery in a secluded green field by a river. 

Arrived home in broad daylight a bit after 7pm.  Lots of driving again today, and the usual adrenalin high following the successful completion of motorways, roundabouts, lane changes and exits.  It’s particularly tricky getting from the M25 onto the M4 without ending up at Heathrow …   very heavy traffic going the other way on the M25 but we had a good run through.  Not a bad way to spend a day.    

Maidenhead: Journal 19 Brighton

Brighton Pavilion

I could live in Brighton.   Well … maybe not …  but I’ll settle for a few weeks there with the first gorgeous guy who asks me.   Brighton’s the sort of place where it would be nice to have a partner …  someone to share the trendy mix of sophistication, bohemianism, cool hip and gay glam that seems to come together here. There’s an absolute feast of music and theatre on offer, great shops, fabulous food, and pubs and clubs galore.  There’s also a beach covered with pebbles, deckchairs for hire and the famous Brighton Pier – full of tackiness!!   And if that’s not enough, there’s the indescribably gorgeous, glorious, dazzling and decadent Royal Pavilion.

On the way down in the train on Tuesday morning, I read my horoscope in the paper that someone had left on the seat  (I love this custom on all the trains … newspapers just keep passing hands throughout the day.)    Anyway, after seeing what was in store for Aquarius today, I had to tear it out and save it.  This is what the stars predicted …    “What makes you content?  You can’t define it but you have plenty of it today.  A warm, giving, loving, fluffy cocoon kind of a day.  The kind you want to bottle forever. Just perfect….”      How right they were!!  

It was great going all the way by train.  Very easy too, with only a short middle tube ride in London from Paddington to Victoria.  I still think the British trains are excellent.  On the London-Brighton train, a man even came through with a refreshment trolley and papers for sale.  Very civilized.   

Enough about the journey….. must move on to what I actually did on my day at the seaside.    (The place is now officially called Brighton and Hove – these two adjacent towns have merged.)     I walked from the station down to the front and it was nice to see the sea again after a month or so of living in the country.  In bright sunshine everything looks good, and Brighton didn’t disappoint.  The “beach”, however, is made up entirely of little rocks – not a grain of sand in sight.  But this didn’t prevent a few determined sunbathers from stretching out and pretending they were on the Riviera or somewhere.   We’re so spoilt with our beaches in Oz.   I wandered on to the Pier and had to laugh at the sort-of upmarket tackiness of it all.  All that was missing were the naughty postcards … and I bet they were even there somewhere.  

From the Pier it was back towards the town centre and the amazing Royal Pavilion of George IV.  George had it built entirely as a splendid pleasure palace in the late 1700’s while he was a young, handsome and debonair playboy prince.  And it really does defy description – no photos or guide books can quite prepare you for the truly hedonistic gorgeousness of it.   On the outside it looks like a mix of Turkish, Russian, Persian and Indian domes and ornate minarets, but it’s the decorations inside that leave you gasping.  You wander through it at your own pace with a hand-held audio guide listening to amazing stories of George’s life and times, and the grand parties that were held there, while staring up at superb domed glass ceilings, huge silver and gold dragons, chandeliers like crystal fountains, dazzling glass lotus flower lights, sumptuous carpets, luxurious furnishings … and on and on and on.   I spent over 2 absolutely breathtaking hours going from room to gorgeous room. 

George IV was the son of George III, and, like Prince Charles, had a long time to wait until he got to the throne.  He was made Prince Regent in 1811 when his Dad went ‘mad’ but he only reigned for 10 years following George III’s death in 1830 by which time he was getting old and grossly overweight, suffered from gout and other illnesses and was well past his days of youthful decadence, mistresses, music and partying.  He was succeeded by his younger brother, King William IV and Queen Adelaide … names well-known to South Aussies.  What I learned about ‘our’ King William though, was that despite having 15 children, he had no legitimate heirs to the throne!   Consequently, when he died, it passed to his niece, Victoria.  And the rest, as they say, is history.  Maybe it’s no wonder George III went mad with sons like young George and William.  

Brighton seems to have retained something of the heady atmosphere of those days – it’s still a place to go to for fun, entertainment and probably more than a bit of decadence.  It’s also still very involved with the arts, something which George was passionate about.  The Art Gallery and Museum has an excellent, eclectic display of paintings, design, pottery, cultures of the world and lots of nostalgic bits and pieces of Brighton’s own history.   Brighton has a Festival of Arts in May each year that would probably rival Adelaide’s.  And there’s a feast of other theatre, music and dance all year long. 

I enjoyed a cup of tea in the Adelaide Tearoom on the balcony of the Royal Pavilion overlooking the gardens and central park of the city where the lunchtime crowds were basking in the sunshine, doing Tai Chi, busking, eating ice-creams and generally enjoying themselves.  I could probably go on raving about the happiness of the day, but that’s probably enough to remember it all by.   Got home well after dark – then couldn’t sleep for hours.  

So it’s now Wednesday and once again I missed the Ramblers’ walk today.  Didn’t get to sleep till about 3am, so turned the alarm clock off and, of course, slept in this morning.  No matter …

Not much else to report over the last few days.  Only outing of interest and pleasure was lunch at Bob’s place on Sunday.  He cooked a lovely meal for Pauline, me and another woman friend of theirs.  After lunch he dozed off in his armchair while we girls shared a chat and some laughs.  Amazing how much the Aussies and the Brits have in common … well, probably not all that amazing, but it certainly makes it easy to ‘fit in’ here.  Pauline, Joyce and I worked out that we were all at Teachers College at the same time in the early 60’s, then all shared the trials and frustrations of our respective education systems.   Another topic of conversation turned out to be disability services – or the lack of them.  Joyce has a grandson with a severe intellectual disability and the family has had exactly the same struggle that Australian families go through to get decent accommodation, education and therapy services.  Fortunately, they’ve been able to access excellent respite care, but it seems that there’s still a long way to go all over the world until there’s anything like full recognition of the rights of people with disabilities. 

Maidenhead: Journal 20 Grumpy

Even in the very best of times, there probably has to be a bit of a dip occasionally.  So, while I can honestly say  that up until today I’ve been riding high, feeling extremely happy and loving everything, a change in mood at some stage was probably inevitable.  And it happened today.  Not welcome, all the same.   I’ve been feeling quite tired for the last couple of days, but today I just completely ran out of steam.    Probably the result of several things coming together … too much of a good time over the past few weeks, a sudden return to wintry weather, a couple of bad nights’ sleep, a long walk this morning, and the realisation that this whole experience is coming to an end very soon.   I think I’ll just lie low over the weekend and get myself back into top gear ready for the trip to France coming up on Monday.   

A few other minor issues also seemed to take on bigger proportions today than they should normally have, so the net result has been a tired, grumpy and frustrated resident at Cob Cottage today.   For example … the smoke alarm thing started beeping periodically in the night which of course kept waking me up until I went downstairs and got a chair, balanced precariously over the stairwell at about 2.30 am, and took it down.  I bought a new battery and installed it today as I didn’t want to leave the house un-alarmed while I’m in France next week. But could I get it back up again??   No sir … not yet anyway.  I’m determined to solve it before I leave for France, but it can stay down for tonight.   *@#’*&!!!  

I also realised today that I forgot to bring an Aust-Europe electricity conversion plug with me from home, so unless I can get a universal one at the airport or somewhere, I won’t be able to recharge camera batteries or phone while I’m away, nor use my hairdryer.   I also meant to go to the little local Post Office today to change some £ into Euro – but I forgot.  Might be able to do it tomorrow if I have enough energy … but I know it’s not really all that big a deal, because I can always get them at the airport on Monday if I have to.  Just another little frustration on a frustrating day. 

The day actually didn’t start out too badly – apart from waking up to cold and wind instead of the lovely spring-in-the-air kind of weather we’ve had over the past week.  I’d arranged to go for a walk with Dora, so went as planned, despite feeling quite weary.  The walk was an excellent one, though would have been even better in sunshine.  We went to Virginia Water, a huge lake in Windsor Great Park.   It’s about 4 miles, or 6-7 km, right around the lake – and we did it all.   Being on the Royal Estate, the gardens, woods and paths are very well kept, and there are interesting features along the way like mini-cascades, a stone bridge, old Roman ruins brought over from Tripoli and re-erected in the Park, a giant totem pole (gift of the Canadians), plus a few nice houses.   It was only when I got home that I felt quite exhausted and run-down.   Slept for a couple of hours and will take it easy tomorrow. 

Maidenhead: Journal 21 A trip to France – Chateaux of the Loire Valley

Cinq jours en France … comment commencer?   (Five days in France …. where do I start?)    My original plan to try and write at least some of this entry in French dipped a bit overnight, but the odd word or two of français may appear when it isn’t too difficile …  After 5 days of stumbling along trying to speak the language, I was actually getting a teeny bit more confident towards the end and didn’t do too badly overall, especially with all the practical questions like ….   

  • A quel heure le bus à l’aeroport depart, s’il vous plait?   
  •  Vous allez au chateau de Chenonceau, s’il vous plait? 
  • Le chateau – est-ce très loin de la gare?    

I managed plenty of bonjours, mercis, au revoirs and d’accords as required.  “Je ne comprends pas” and “Je suis desolée, je ne parle pas français” came in handy at times, particularly when I was stopped several times by people asking for directions or wanting me to complete a survey!   I must have looked a bit like une Française, which is nice to think …  

I have to say, without exception, that all the French people I met in Tours and elsewhere were kind, helpful, gracious and friendly.   As much as anyone can feel ‘at home’ in any country where you don’t speak the language, or know the customs, I felt very comfortable and happy throughout my whole time in this part of France.  I think I got to know Tours as well as anyone could in just a few days, too, by walking up and down almost every street and boulevard, exploring the beautiful squares, gardens, river, markets, cathedral, old city and some of the surrounding countryside. 

All the travel arrangements went without a hitch.   I set out last Monday at 5.30am and drove to Dora’s place.  She’d kindly offered (insisted) that I leave the car in her driveway while I was away, for which I was very grateful.  It shortened the walk to and from the bus stop in Maidenhead by about 10 minutes, and I knew the car would be safe.  Caught the 6.05am bus to Heathrow, then by a stroke of luck, connected immediately with a bus from there to Stansted (had thought I was going to have to fill in ½ hour but arrived early).    The combined bus trip took over 3 hours, so I got to the airport a bit after 9am to check in for the 11am flight to Tours.  The flight itself only takes 1 hour.  

Ryanair is not just cheap, it’s also efficient and friendly.  Unless you pay extra for priority seating (which I didn’t) they have free seating … so you just climb aboard and grab an aisle or a window if you’re lucky (which I was).   Arrival in Tours was easy too, despite being a bit overcast and damp.   But – talk about location, location, location – my hotel was a 2-minute walk from the bus station, the train station and the Tourist Information office, so I was able to check in within 5 minutes of arrival.   In some cities, the area around the railway station can be a bit seedy, but not in Tours.  There’s a lovely big square with a fountain, nice restaurants and shops and it’s very close to everything.  The Hotel Val de Loire was all I could have wished for too – a very pleasant room overlooking Boulevard Herteloupe, my own bathroom, a faded rose-coloured velvet armchair and an altogether pleasant old-world charm.   

Tours Plumerau

And then it was off to explore for the afternoon.  I took the parapluie (umbrella) and toured Tours on foot.  Picked up a map at the Tourist Office but ended up just wandering wherever I felt like and came upon the magnificent old Gothic Cathedral of St Gatien (similar to Notre Dame in Paris, I think), also lots of interesting little winding streets, Place Plumerau with its 15th century houses and shops, the huge and fast-flowing River Loire and its lovely riverside walks, attractive shops, the magnificent Town Hall and Palais of Justice, and restaurants, bars and people.   Being lundi (Monday), many of the shops were closed.  I also learnt during the next couple of days that many also close between 12 and 2pm for lunch every day, and that different areas of the city seem to close either for lunch or dinner … that is, you can’t expect to eat in the evening in an area that mostly serves at lunch time, or vice versa.   I’m sure this would all come to be quite natural after a few days, but it took me a while to work out that I could get a glass of wine at a restaurant, but no evening meal, even when they had menus out on the footpath – and that if I wanted the sort of place I was looking for I’d have to walk back to another part of town.   However, I do love just strolling around new places soaking up the atmosphere and getting the ‘feel’.   On the first day, I think I felt a bit cocooned in my Anglo/Australian identity … possibly how foreigners to our shores feel when they first arrive … a bit nervous about speaking to anyone, taking extra care crossing roads, trying to work out what all the signs say etc.   But that soon faded as I learnt my way around.   I ended up having dinner the first evening in a restaurant next to the station – with a glass of vin rouge which came chilled.  Rather a surprise, and much more delicate than our own full-bodied red wines, I thought. 

Woke up next morning to light drizzling rain, so changed the plans I’d worked out yesterday with the help of the young woman at the bus station.  I’d figured that I could do my own mini-tour of part of the Loire Valley by travelling on the local buses.  And this is what I’d intended for today.  But with 3 full days still ahead, it seemed silly to spend a whole day around the chateaux in less than perfect weather conditions.  Also, when I’d pulled the curtains back in the hotel that morning, I’d found a street market set up in the boulevard below, so this was too good an opportunity to miss.   I’d already decided not to have breakfast at the hotel (it cost 6 Euro and I knew I could do better in the local cafes), so I went down to the market and found a cheery little stall selling delicious French crepes.   Got chatting to Jacques, the crepe-maker, in very stumbling French with lots of laughs and hand-signs, and he gave me his email address to send him a copy of the photo I took.   The other market stalls were selling lovely fresh fruit and vegetables, cheeses and meat.  Jacques also told me about the Flower Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays – “tres, tres belles” he assured me … so I made a mental note….

But then I had to decide what to do for the rest of the day.  Made enquiries at the train station about timetables, fares etc to Azay-le-Rideau, a village with a chateau.  Sounded good, so I ended up buying a ticket … aller au bus, retour au train (go by bus, come back by train).    Seemed like a good idea until I went and checked with the woman at the bus station … “Non! Pas de bus to Azay-le-Rideau”  (no, no bus to Azay-le-Rideau).  ?????  Then, for the next hour, life became a bit of a circus while I tried to work out where to go and how to get there and why there seemed to be some mix-up.  But it was all good practice for French.   Long story short, I managed to get my tickets reimbursed, then went and tried to book a tourist half-day coach trip at the Tourist Info Office (steeling myself to pay 40 Euro for the privilege) … only to find that they were all booked out.   So, it was back to the bus station to see where any other bus might take me … only to find that it now appeared there WAS going to be a bus to Azay-le-Rideau today and that my original ticket would have been OK.   So, back to the train station to re-purchase the return bus/train ticket  and across the road again to the bus station to wait for the bus that might or might not be coming.  By this time it became obvious that I wasn’t the only confused passenger.  A group of people had gathered at Quai 9 trying to get to Azay-le-Rideau and Chinon (including two Australian couples who were going to a friend’s 60th birthday party), and there was a lot of shoulder-shrugging, and head-shaking going on.  One man (a bit of a busy-body I thought at first) seemed to have taken it upon himself to make the enquiries and look after us all – like a shepherd looking after his little flock –  so I eventually plucked up courage and asked “Excusez-moi, Monsieur.  Qu’est-ce que c’est le problem?”  to which he replied that there was a fault on the train track this morning and they’d decided to put on a bus instead … but the bus driver didn’t know and he hadn’t turned up for work!  So we were now waiting for a replacement driver!   Anyway, Monsieur le Professeur and I then got talking (he told me later he was a History teacher) and he turned out to be a lovely, very kind gentleman who listened patiently to my stumbling attempts at French.   He told me about the village of Azay-le-Rideau and the history of the chateau, and when I mentioned to him that I’d heard the chateau was 2km from the station, he kindly offered to drive me when we got there.  He had his car parked at the station.     

The bus driver eventually arrived and Monsieur le Professeur shepherded us all on board.  I got a front seat and had a picture postcard view of the French countryside as we drove along for about an hour.   The rain had stopped and everything was beautiful.  French villages aren’t as ‘dolls-house’ cute as English ones, but they have a softness and peacefulness about them, and the light across the fields and woods that morning was like an Impressionist painting.   And to top it all off, during the drive, my phone rang with a call from my dear brother in Tasmania.  How surreal to be driving through the middle of France talking to Malcolm – but how very nice!   He was reminding me that it was Anzac Day on Friday and the 90th anniversary of the end of WWI, and there was to be a special ceremony at Villers-Bretonneux if I happened to be in the area.  I told the other Australians on the bus, but they were heading off on a cycling tour after the birthday bash.  

When we pulled into Azay-le-Rideau, my new friend the Professeur ushered me to his car, unlocked it and proceeded to walk around the other side.  I thought it a bit odd that he’d left the keys in the door, but I removed them for him and climbed in.   It was only when I looked up to find him at the open door on the other side, suggesting that I should go around there to sit, that I realised I’d automatically climbed in to the left-hand side of the car and was sitting in front of the steering wheel!!!  Quel embarrassment!!!     He was perfectly gracious and charming about my faux pas, and we both laughed while I climbed out and walked around to the passenger side on the right.  During the 2km drive through the village to the chateau, I thanked him very much for his kindness and told him I thought I was very lucky.  He nodded and said I had a “lucky star” because it had been raining for 3 weeks in Tours and today was the day the sun was shining.   What a lovely man.  

The chateau at Azay-le-Rideau has been described as one of the jewels of the Loire Valley, and it is certainly very beautiful.  Dating from about 1515, it has a rich and colourful history, like all the other chateaux.   Incidentally, I’ll include here a little bit from the rather old Guide Book on the Loire that I’d borrowed from Maidenhead Library (the only one I could find).   It says: “No single word in English adequately translates ‘chateau’.  We employ numerous words that differentiate the various kind of chateaux.  We speak of feudal fortress, castle, stately home, palace, country house, manor house, country mansion.  In French, ‘chateau’ is a convenient blanket-word for all such buildings, large and small.” 

Azay-le-Rideau chateau

French history is full of kings, nobles, lords and wealthy financiers – all seemingly with many mistresses – and I can’t even begin to remember the stories of who built what, slept where, with whom etc.    Suffice to say that all the chateaux changed hands many times as battles were won and lost, and many embellishments and alterations were made over the centuries.  But they are all similar in their beauty of location, grand interiors, furnishings, tapestries and paintings.  The Loire Valley, which includes the Loire, Indre and Cher rivers, seems to have been the area where all the kings and nobles chose to have their grand homes.  There are dozens of these magnificent buildings in this part of France, set on one of the rivers amidst beautiful gardens, woods and vineyards.      

Of the three that I visited during my time in Tours, I think I liked Azay-le-Rideau the best – maybe because it was the first and it was such a sunny, happy day.  But also because architecturally the chateau was like something out of a fairy story with turrets and towers, and built as if it were rising right out of the river.  The staircases, bedchambers, drawing rooms and loggias are all exquisitely described in the tourist brochure, along with the stained-glass windows, fireplaces, statues and everything else.   I hope I remember it all. 

After enjoying the chateau and its gardens, I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the charming little village, with its pretty shops, tea rooms, boulangeries and patisseries … these are everywhere and so very tempting.  The afternoon reminded me of the lovely day I spent in Giverny (outside Paris) with friends a few years ago    There’s something very, very appealing about French villages. 

I walked the 2km back to the station – and wouldn’t you know it – my lucky star was still shining.  I knew I was too early for the train that I’d booked on, but thought I’d just sit and read while I waited.  But as I arrived, along came another train going to Tours, so I hopped aboard and enjoyed the short ½ hour ride home in comfort.  

Dinner that night consisted of pickings from the supermarket … a baguette, tin of sardines, a tomato and a chocolate – in my hotel room in front of my French TV set.   I’d decided to go to the movies to fill in the evening.  There was a Martin Scorsese documentary on the Rolling Stones showing at the local cinema – called “Shine a Light”.   It was in English, with French subtitles – an absolute treat – and I loved it.  I’ll forever be thankful that both the Stones and I have all lived long enough for me to come to appreciate them and their music.  I wasn’t a fan in the 60’s, or even the 70’s, 80’s etc, but have certainly come to enjoy them more recently.  The movie was about a concert they did in New York during Clinton’s presidency … with lots of background clips of their earlier years, news interviews etc.  They now all look as ravaged and sunken as Keith Richards has always looked, but their talent is phenomenal – and they’re still dead sexy.  Specially Mick.   It was fun understanding enough French to read the subtitles and to realise just how inaccurate or inadequate they are … one classic example was when Mick Jagger was introducing one of his backing singers and saying she came from Queens, and she corrected him and said she was from Brooklyn … and he said to the camera “ I f**cked up” .. The subtitle appeared as “J’ai fait un erreur” (I made an error)!!    

I was still buzzing with the music, the weather, and the pleasures of the day as I made my way home along the cobbled back streets after the movie.  C’est la vie – vraiment!!  

Flower market in Tours

So we move on to Wednesday 23rd … with a decision to be made.  Chateaux or Flower Markets??  Once again, with another day up my sleeve, I opted to leave the chateaux and to check out the markets, and once again it was the right decision.  A few blocks further along the pedestrian strip of the Boulevard, I came to some long, long rows of stalls on either side, absolutely covered with the most gorgeous displays of tulips, hydrangeas, pansies, carnations – every flower you can imagine in dazzling displays of colour and variety.   I could have taken a photo of every single flower-seller’s stall but had to settle for 4 or 5 before just strolling along and enjoying the sights.  There were also delicious food stalls, including Jacques’ crepes. Beyond the flowers, there were other stalls selling all the usual cheap clothing, watches, sunglasses and jewellery that you find in markets all around the world, so I wandered back to the flowers for a few more strolls up and down, before heading off the Old City.

It turned out to be market day at Les Halles too.  Les Halles has both a splendid covered market and the traditional street market in the square, with the trestles, umbrellas and tents that you always see in French movies.   Beautiful breads, pastries, fruit and vegetables – and so much choice.   The inside market was like a very polished, shiny, glitzy version of Adelaide City Market with row upon row of the most amazing cheese shops, meat, fish, more fruit and vegetables, spices and wines.  I just had to buy something, so settled for a small piece of one of the many varieties of goats’ cheese and a few slices of pork to go with the baguette I had with me for lunch.  It was great looking at this fantastic spread of food – but also frustrating not being able to buy much and share it with someone.  With my petits purchases, I went walking on …. along the river, back through the tiny, winding streets of the old city, past houses that were a mix of 15th and 20th century, old churches and more.  The old houses are made of timber beams and tiny red bricks set in a kind of Tudor form (the only way I can describe it) … they’re the skinny, crooked houses of nursery rhymes, with windows and doors at odd angles, steep sloping roofs and all very, very picturesque. 

As always, I found the people extremely courteous and pleasant.  Everyone says ‘bonjour’ and ‘au revoir’ to each another as they enter and leave the shops.  And when friends meet in the street they give each other the traditional double-cheek kiss of greeting.  On one of my country bus trips, I particularly enjoyed watching a large number of high school students getting on and off along the way, with every single one of them saying ‘good morning’ as they entered, and ‘au revoir’ as they left the bus.  The driver returned every greeting too.  It was all very natural and comfortable.   All the teenagers and young people everywhere were also neatly dressed – smart, casual, trendy and gorgeous, but no torn jeans, baggy pants or scruffy T-shirts (unlike the kids in Maidenhead).  It seems that they don’t go in for grunge in regional France.  No graffiti anywhere either.  

I easily filled in the day in Tours, walking miles and enjoying the shops and street life.   The big shops were quite expensive, but there was plenty of variety, much like we have at home.  One good thing about travelling is that you can’t carry much luggage, so while the temptations are there, the reality is you can’t indulge in buying. 

Thursday 24th was the day I finally got to do my bus trip through the chateaux country.  And it was a glorious sunny day, the best weather of the whole trip.   These country buses are very comfortable long-distance coaches, but they only cost 1.50 Euro regardless of the distance in any one trip.  That’s between $2-$3 Australian.   So, for a total cost of under $10.00 for the day, I got to travel through lovely villages and countryside, visit two of the best chateaux and have a whole day of doing what I wanted to do, while a half-day tourist office trip would have cost about $60 and been like being with a herd of cattle.    My first stop was Chenonceaux, a small village with a magnificent chateau.  For some reason the chateau has the same name as the village, but minus the ‘x’ … don’t ask me why.   I’d had to catch the bus at 9am and hadn’t had breakfast before leaving Tours, so before visiting the chateau I called in to the village bakery and enjoyed a café au lait and croissant, sitting in a sunny window watching the passers-by.   Then I wandered down past the 12th Century church, old stone houses and crumbling stone walls to the entrance gate of the chateau … and a totally different scene.  There were dozens of tourist coaches and swarms of people milling around buying entrance tickets.  Where on earth had they all come from?   One of life’s mysteries is how you can travel for miles on country roads and hardly see a car, and then get to a special tourist site or picnic ground and there’ll be thousands of people.  I just don’t get it.   Anyway, Chenonceau was rather spoiled for me by the huge crowds – school groups, families and tourists of every nationality.

Chenonceau

Inside the chateau it was difficult to get from room to room through the tiny old doorways because of the crowds.  Frustrating, too, having to pause or jump out of the way while people took photographs.  I gave up, and instead of following the marked room-by-room ‘trail’, I went upstairs when I should have gone down, backwards through the Great Hall and so on … anywhere where I could find an opening and fewer people.  I may have missed a couple of bedrooms or libraries or something but I really didn’t care.  It was the most crowded place I’ve visited in either England or France.   Outside wasn’t quite so bad, especially when you got off the main paths and wandered into the beautiful woods and along the river.  I also came to the home gardens where the vegetables, flowers and herbs are still grown as they probably were in earlier centuries to provide for the noble folk in residence.  This area was very peaceful and lovely – the crowds don’t seem to go off the beaten track.  

Chenonceau gardens

Two hours was enough in Chenonceau, even though it obviously is a very beautiful and popular chateau.  Its history is interesting too, as it’s been owned and managed by women throughout most of its years.  One widow or mistress after another seems to have lived at Chenonceau.  Built by Thomas Bohier, chamberlain to four kings, it was lived in by his widow, Catherine, after his death but when she died in debt, it was taken over by Henri II as a gift for his mistress, Diane De Poitiers.  She lived there for 9 years (presumably entertaining Henri) until his death, when his widow the queen, Catherine of Medici, turned poor mistress Diane out.  Though she did give her another chateau in consolation.   Catherine and her daughter, Mary Stuart, spent a lot of time there before the next owner, Louise de Lorraine, Catherine’s daughter-in-law, came to live there.  After Louise’s death and a period of neglect, another woman came to Chenonceau, the widow of Claude Dupin.  Madame Dupin held court there for years with all the philosophers and intellectuals of the day, including Rousseau and Voltaire.   Her descendants eventually sold it another woman, and its present-day owner is a Madame Menier.    The chateau still celebrates “Les Dames of Chenonceau” with a wax museum and a sound and light show … neither of which I chose to see.

Leonardo da Vinci monument at Amboise

After the chateau and the crowds, I went back to the comparatively peaceful main road, waited under a little roadside shrine bedecked with flowers, and soon caught the bus to Amboise – saying ‘bonjour’ to the driver as I paid my 1.50 euro, of course.   Amboise is on the Loire and I sat by the river to eat the sandwich I’d brought with me for lunch.  It’s a big, wide river and quite fast-flowing, and it was a lovely spot for a picnic with the chateau high up above the town behind me.   I climbed up the path to the chateau in the early afternoon, and more by luck than judgement missed the crowds because it was still lunch-time in France.  Unlike at Chenonceau, I had the place almost to myself.  Chateau d’Amboise is regarded as one of the very important royal castles of the French kings.  It certainly has magnificent views from its terraces and gardens, and some very grand rooms inside.   Leonardo da Vinci is buried in the chapel at Amboise too – I saw his grave.   Leonardo was invited to the French court of Amboise in the last years of his life (early in the 16th century) and given a nearby manor house called Clos Luce, which has become as much of a famed tourist centre as the chateau itself, with stories of the man and his amazing inventions.  Having seen an excellent exhibition of Leonardo da Vinci’s life and works in the Auckland Museum a few years ago (I think it came to Adelaide too?) I didn’t feel I needed to go through the house in Amboise, because by the time I’d explored the chateau and wandered up to Clos Luce, the hordes of tourists had descended again.   The little streets around the area were very attractive though, so I just enjoyed the walk and the views. 

I’m glad I visited the chateau. It had a remarkably free and open atmosphere compared with many of the stately homes and castles I’ve been in.  I often found myself alone in rooms with priceless paintings and furnishings and very few roped-off areas.  I guess there must have been security cameras, but it was all very peaceful and nice.  When Louis-Philippe, Louis XIV’s brother, became king of France and owner of Amboise during the late 1700’s to early 1800’s, he had the castle redecorated in a more ‘modern’ style.  Some of these later rooms are very sumptuous with their red velvet and rich carved furniture. 

I think 3 or 4 chateaux are probably enough to visit in the Loire Valley … there are dozens to choose from … but there are plenty of other attractions in the natural beauty of the area, plus the wineries and historic towns and villages.  It wouldn’t be difficult to drive around for a week or two, staying at little auberges or local farms, shopping in the markets and walking through the countryside.  Tours is an excellent base for seeing the Valley, but having 5 days there has just whetted my appetite for more of regional France. 

The last day (yesterday) was basically spent on travelling.  I had about 3 hours to fill in in the morning before catching the shuttle bus to the airport, then had the usual check-in, immigration, security searches etc to take up the time before the flight.  Then the same thing again on arrival back in UK.  I was quizzed on my reasons for going to France, length of stay in Britain etc … the immigration officer possibly thought I wanted to extend my allotted time in this country.  But we ended up both smiling and she stamped my passport for another 6 months.  Too bad I’ll only be able to take advantage of it for one more week.

So that’s it for my little sojourn in France.   Je l’ai aimé beaucoup!     Et je retournerai quand je peux parler français plus bien.   

Maidenhead: Journal 22 Windsor Castle

Tuesday 29th April: I am totally, completely “Castled-Out” – so it must be time to be heading back to the New World soon.

Windsor Castle

I spent the day in Windsor today ( a really lovely town )  but I do believe I’ve had my fill of castles,  stately homes and chateaux – for a while.  The State Rooms and St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle are quite magnificent, but wandering through yet more Great Halls, Guards Rooms, Kings and Queens Drawing Rooms, Royal Dining Rooms, all with ever more splendid and priceless artworks, tapestries, thrones and mile-long dining tables … well, the senses become numb, the eyes start to glaze  and the feet become extremely weary.  I never thought I’d say it … but, yes, there is a limit.  

Changing the Guard at Windsor Castle

One of the best features of Windsor Castle is its massive size and fortress dominance.  It’s built high on a rocky crag overlooking the town and surrounding country for miles below.    It’s quite spectacular from any angle with all its towers and turrets, especially the big Round Tower.   I arrived in good time to watch the Changing of the Guards ceremony.  Not as impressive as the Buckingham Palace show, but still lots of marching, stamping, barking out of orders, slapping guns up and down and generally showing off all the military hoo-ha that these sorts of ceremonial things seem to require.  The new lot of Guards who came in to take over were the Ghurkhas (I think) or some similar regiment from that part of the world.  They marched into the courtyard with their band of drums, trumpets and tubas, and looked absolutely immaculate in their snowy white uniforms, shiny boots and silk wrap-around skirt-things.      

It was interesting seeing the Great Hall totally restored to its former magnificence following the big fire of a few years ago.   Master craftsmen rebuilt the massive carved ceiling from English oak in exactly the same way as it would have been done over 500 years ago.  This is the great room where the Knights of the Garter (the highest of all Royal Orders) are sworn in and meet with HRH once a year on Garter Day.   All so much pomp and majesty.  

Other wonders of Windsor Castle for tourists to surge past are: Queen Mary’s Dolls House and the Royal Picture Gallery.  I quite enjoyed looking at the current exhibition on royal weddings through the ages.  There were all sorts of little personal bits and pieces … drawings, telegrams, decorations from the wedding cakes, bits of the bridesmaids’ dresses and so on.

After the Castle I wandered around Windsor for a while.  It’s a pretty town with lovely shops and restaurants.  And then I walked across the footbridge to Eton – the school and the town that exists around it.   What another world!  There were school boys strolling up the winding High Street dressed in pin-stripe trousers, black frock coats and high stiff collars.   Some boys – thank goodness – were wearing tennis or casual gear because Tuesday is apparently sports day.  But it’s hard to imagine teenage boys actually living in frock coats every day.   They also still wear top hats for formal occasions.  All the boys I saw looked as if they’d been born with plums or silver spoons in their mouths.  The fees for Eton are something like £10,000 a term.  No doubt they’ll all go on to Oxford or Cambridge or take over the family stately home in later years.     The school itself is like a College at Oxford.  The classrooms are scattered throughout the town, which seems to exist mainly for the school, or now, to some extent for the tourist trade.   I went into the main cobbled-stone quadrangle around which are the halls of residence – though some of the boys also live in ‘boarding houses’ in the town.  I also looked into the Chapel – very beautiful with a definite atmosphere of hundreds of years of school-boy history.   The Museum gave a good overview of how the school has operated throughout the centuries and how life and traditions continue today.   Eton is well worth an hour or two.  Just wandering up the High Street itself is quite charming. 

Wednesday 30th April: Pauline and Bob very kindly took me out to dinner to say farewell last night.   We went to the Old Devil Inn, a few miles out of Maidenhead, a lovely, cosy pub with an amazingly extensive and delicious menu.  The place was full – even on a very rainy Tuesday night – but had such a friendly atmosphere.    I love the low ceilings, wooden beams, nooks and crannies that these old pubs contain.  A most enjoyable evening. 

But I now need to go back a day or two …. I got started on Windsor yesterday and haven’t even mentioned my day up in London on Monday, or the very pleasant local walk I did around the outskirts of Maidenhead golf course on Sunday – after having morning tea with Pauline and afternoon tea with Dora that day.   I’m still discovering attractive places in this local area, and the walk on Sunday was like a stroll in the country. 

As Monday was going to be my last chance for visiting London for who-knows-how-long, I made a big day of it and – as always – enjoyed every minute.   Started the day with another of the guided London Walks – the one called ‘Darkest Victorian London’ which covered the old corners and back lanes of Charles Dickens’ world across the river.   This was one of the poorest and dirtiest parts of London in the 18th and 19th centuries and even into the last century until the workhouses were finally eradicated and ‘poor laws’ reformed with the modern welfare system.  It was a world of pickpockets, street sellers, body snatchers and prostitutes … and the guide brought these characters to life with her stories and acting.   We saw a paupers’ burying ground, one of the old ‘ragged schools’ for poor children, the site of the prison where Dickens’ father was imprisoned.  The real underside of London.  Now, of course, it’s become a trendy inner city residential and market area with apartments selling for well over £1 million – but still mixed in with updated housing-trust type tenement buildings for the less well-off. 

The walk ended near St Thomas Hospital, one of the oldest in the city.  I learned that the poet Keats trained there as a doctor before he gave medicine away to concentrate on his writing.  It seems he was too sensitive a soul to cope with the operations that were conducted in his day without the benefit of modern anaesthetics.  And I don’t blame him.   I visited the Old Operating Theatre museum and saw some pretty gruesome evidence of how amputations and even abdominal operations were done in the pioneering days of surgery.  No wonder the mortality rate was pretty high.   The museum is above an old church and to get it you have to climb up one of the narrowest stone spiral staircases I’ve even experienced.  No place for the faint-hearted…

View from London Eye

I then caught the bus to Waterloo.  The London Eye was never top of my priority list of things to do in London, but being my ‘last’ day in the city on this trip, I decided to splash out – it costs about $30 for a ride – and see the city laid out in all its splendour below.  There were hundreds of people queuing for tickets, but it was all very efficient and we were on board in fairly quick time in cable cars that hold approximately 20 people per car.  The wheel ‘flies’ up and around over the river with spectacular views in all directions, particularly of the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben.  It’s something worth doing once. 

From here I strolled along Southbank past buskers, street performers, ice cream sellers and book stalls.  A happy sunny afternoon atmosphere …. and on past the Festival Theatre and Concert Hall.  There’s so much music and theatre, including lots of free performances, in this city that you honestly could never be bored. 

Next was another bus back to Covent Garden to wander around the market again and do some last-minute shopping.  Then, totally exhausted after being on my feet for hours, I finished the day sitting in the courtyard of Covent Garden with a glass of wine being entertained by a group of young string players jazzing up the classics.  They had the crowd clapping and whistling along and this happy tourist smiling and feeling incredibly lucky. 

By the time I got back to Paddington, and then Maidenhead, I was nearly crawling with tiredness, but wouldn’t have missed a step of today’s long, long ramble around a few more of the sights of wonderful London. 

Maidenhead: Journal 23 GOODBYE ENGLAND

Goodbye UK  …. A few hours of packing and tidying are all that remain before heading for Heathrow and the long flight back to Oz.  

As Malcolm said in an email yesterday “all’s well that ends well”.  And Helen offered this little consolation …. “don’t cry because it’s over – smile because it happened”.  

The last couple of days have been a mix of routine daily life, plus a few goodbyes and generally getting organised for going home.   Wednesday night was the last Book Group meeting and, once again, a great evening of discussion and sharing ideas about good books.   Hilda couldn’t get to the meeting but came over to Norden Farm at 9pm to meet me for a farewell drink.  She’s also very kindly offered to drive me to Heathrow tonight.  Everyone I’ve met here has been so incredibly kind throughout my stay.   David also called around yesterday and offered me a lift to Heathrow too. 

I went walking with Dora yesterday morning at West Wycombe, about ½ hour’s drive from Maidenhead.  It’s another pretty little village, but completely owned by the lord of the manor who lives in the big house on the outskirts.  This seems incredibly feudal in the 21st Century, but apparently people rent the houses and shops, and the village retains its old-world charm.  Too bad there’s now a busy road running through the middle of it.  The views from the surrounding hills were glorious – rolling green fields and valleys – with the church and family mausoleum on top of the hill as very visible landmarks.    

It’s now midday and Pauline just dropped in to say goodbye.  Time is running out …

Goodbye Maidenhead – Hello Home.    

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