By Christine Potter
Whether you plan your trip to the nth degree or leave your options open to the fates, a trip to the UK can provide an arpeggio of sensations, from spine-chilling ghost tales to the pleasures of glorious gardens, magnificent manors and castles and curiously quirky people and places.
The buzz from this year’s April 29 wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton is likely to last year-long, putting extra pizzazz into any itinerary. (And a few pieces of crested porcelain into your suitcase, perhaps.)
Most people know of famous highlights like the castles of Windsor, Edinburgh, and Cardiff, and of palaces like Hampton Court (where the ghost of Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII and second to be beheaded, is said to run screaming through a corridor) so with limited space, I’ve opted to focus on some lesser known attractions.
Riding Shanks’s Pony
The Brits love their walks (riding Shanks’s pony in the vernacular) and the passion has resulted in huge tracts of nature preserves and hundreds of miles of well-maintained trails, many with handy pub accommodations dotting the route. From the south of England (e.g. the 192-kilometre Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury) to Northern Ireland’s 800-kilometre Ulster Way, the country offers great walking for all levels – from casual strollers to serious, boot-wearing, stick-wielding hikers.
My 10-kilometre guided Lake District hike was a half-day doddle, but it served to show how the trails reveal a side of Britain not seen from the road, including creatures like the rare red squirrel, and scenes straight out of a Constable or Turner painting.
We started our walk in Little Langdale, in seemingly torrential rain. This is the UK, where they say “if you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” Within an hour the light was dramatic, casting the Cumbrian Mountains with a painterly brush, and every now and then we stopped for a reading of William Wordsworth’s poetry by our enthusiastic walking guide. We also stopped at the poet’s homes; Rydal Mount, where he died in 1850, and little Dove Cottage, which the family outgrew. It’s now a museum.
Every area has its hiker’s heaven. In Wales, the Gower Peninsular is hard to beat – a nearly 30-kilometre trail that follows the undulating coastal cliffs along the diversely scenic peninsula. It was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty some 50 years ago.
In Scotland, the beautiful Isle of Skye boasts the ultra-challenging, unofficial Skye Trail covering 128 kilometres of tough terrain, which some people manage on a week’s vacation. Too tough for me, but I love the island and enjoy rambling through the pretty villages, ending a short walk in a friendly pub.
Britainonview/Britain On ViewCastles & Stately Homes
One of Scotland’s most photographed landmarks is near the “entrance” to Skye if you arrive by road – the Eilean Donan Castle at Dornie near Kyle of Lochalsh. Built in the 13th century, the castle was lovingly restored in the early 20th century and is today open to view between March and October.
A favourite castle in England? Leeds Castle near Maidstone in Kent, just 65 kilometres southeast of London. It was 1976 before it opened to the public, after the death of its last owner Olive, the Honourable Lady Baillie, whose lifelong passion was restoring it to bequeath to the nation. Its most famous owner was Henry VIII and it has been described as “the loveliest castle in the world.” Built on two lake islands surrounded by 162 hectares of glorious parkland, it dates to about 800. Activities include castle tours, park walks, a nine-hole golf course, unusual waterfowl and birds in Lady Baillie's duckery and aviary and fragrant strolling among the herbs in Culpeper Gardens.
Also in Kent is Chartwell, the private residence of Sir Winston Churchill. No castle, this, but more of a modest mansion, it’s where he retreated with Clementine and the children. It’s kept as a memorial to him, the way his widow wanted it “as if he’d just stepped out to the garden.” A display of his paintings is housed in a garden annex.
Travelling west across England to Cornwall last fall, I discovered the stately Antony House at Torpoint. This National Trust property was the only “real” location for last year’s Alice in Wonderland movie. The early 18th-century home has fine collections of paintings, furniture and textiles, and the landscaped grounds include formal topiary, recognizable in the movie. Another Cornish gem is Cotehele House near Saltash, dating from 1485. It’s set on the bank of River Tamar, with gorgeous gardens, a working quay, watermill, and riverside museum with an old sailing barge, Shamrock, to explore. It’s all a picturesque step back in history.
In Wales, Erddig (pronounced Earthig) near Wrexham, is a stately house, garden and country park, billed as “the most evocative upstairs-downstairs house in Britain.” The reference is to the authentic laundry, bake house, sawmill, and smithy, all in working order and showing how 18th- and 19th-century servants lived. In contrast, upstairs staterooms display exquisite furniture and textiles made for the house in the 1720s. The formal early 18th-century garden has been fully restored to its original layout of 1718 to 1732.
If you’re planning to see gardens and homes in the UK, consider taking out membership in The National Trust (available on site). Three visits and it’s paid for. I rejoin each time I go to Britain.
More information about the UK from www.visitbritain.com.
Most visits to the UK will include a London stay, where a live theatre performance is a must. And a tip: whatever the show, if you’re 60 or over, you’re entitled to standby prices of up to 70 percent on same-day tickets (subject to availability of course). The catch? You have to buy them directly from the theatre box office, but this can be done several hours before the show.
Another London treat is the markets. I find Portobello Road market (open Saturdays) more interesting than Petticoat Lane (daily except Saturdays). The quirky little shops lining the street are worth a visit to this part of Notting Hill, made famous by the movie of the same name. Camden Passage (Wednesdays and Saturdays) is the place for bric-a-brac and books, and for colourful, traditional food head to Borough Market (Thursdays to Saturdays) under the railway arches and across the road from pretty Southwark Cathedral. A market occupied this site long before railways were even thought of, but today’s vendors emphasize “real food.” The Herdwick lamb, for instance, is sold from the stall run by the great-grandson of Beatrix Potter’s chief farmer. (The famed children’s writer spent millions to improve the breed.) Such healthy specialty foods do not come cheap, but the place is crowded with Londoners shopping for meat, cheeses, sausages, game, breads – and the sights, sounds, and smells harmonize in an epicurean symphony. Bowler-hatted gents stroll by, munching on lunches of grilled sausages in fresh baguettes.
Getting around London is made easy with the Oyster Card, available before you go from www.visitbritainshop.com/canada. (It’s also available in London but have it in hand to use on the Heathrow Express when you arrive.) The card is pre-loaded with credit and can be topped up at more than 3,000 machines throughout the city. It never expires, so if you’ve bought a bit too much, you’ll have it for the next visit. An added bonus is the included “twofers,” a multitude of deals for concerts, restaurants, and theatre. (There are no children’s versions so if you’re travelling with youngsters; you’re better off buying them a daily travel card.)