Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Across the pond, part two

Excitement had been building for 90 days as the day of our departure to England finally arrived. Our adrenaline was pumping and we were sitting on ready when my brother-in-law and mother-in-law arrived to drive us to the airport.

Unfortunately, my brother-in-law missed our driveway and backed over our mailbox instead. Not just bumped into it, but turned it into five pieces spread across our lawn like a game of pick-up-sticks. And to add insult to injury, he later learned that he had done $1800 in damages to his wife's car. Ouch! Double ouch! As to our mailbox, thanks to our talented neighbor, David, for repairing it while we were away!

Hugs, kisses, and goodbye's at the airport were still filled with anticipation, though tinged with disbelief and regret about the accident. Alan hugged his Mom, telling her, "I'll see you when we get back," and she responded with a tearful, "If I'm still here." Jewish mother guilt: fact or fiction? I'll let you be the judge.

On those two depressing notes, we checked our bags, praying they wouldn't be over the 50 lb. limit and headed to our gate. Thankfully, we had smooth sailing, so to speak, from that point. We endured the unavoidable layover in Atlanta and departed for Heathrow around 10:30 p.m. After an eight-hour flight spent napping, setting our internal and external clocks six hours forward, an unnecessary hour at the car rental company, and an almost two-hour nightmarish drive in the rain to The Cotswolds, we arrived at the Old Manse Hotel in Burton-on-the-Water around 4:00 p.m.

Old Manse Hotel, Burton-on-the-Water, The Cotswolds
If you're unfamiliar with The Cotswolds, it is a range of wolds (hills) in west-central England. The area is characterized by charming small towns and beautifully-manicured villages built of the underlying Cotswold stone, a honey-colored limestone. Some of the towns include Bath, Bibury, Bourton-on-the-Water, Broadway, Burford, Chipping Campden, Gloucester, Stow-on-the-Wold, Stratford on Avon, Lower Slaughter, Upper Slaughter, and Winchcombe.

After getting settled in our quaint attic room, which included a breathtaking view of a duck-filled canal, we headed out to visit a local pub. When the bartender discovered we were from Alabama, he theatrically held out both arms and loudly exclaimed, "None of the patrons in this pub had anything to do with the oil on your beaches!" We were laughing as everyone agreed by raising their drink in the air and shouting, "Here, here."

Dinner was fish and chips, one of the more famous English dishes. I quickly learned that English peas are appropriately named because they are served with almost everything in England. They can be ordered "mushy" or "whole." "Mushy" peas have been squished with a fork. We found it strange that one cannot mush their own peas but must order them that way.

The next morning, we set out early for a bright and sunny drive to explore Stonehenge and Bath. We rode through miles of the most beautiful lush, green countryside I have ever seen. Every scene was more enchanting than the last and most were dotted with woolly sheep or Gateway boxes disguised as Holstein cattle.

The beautiful rolling wolds (hills) of The Cotswolds.

Pastures of sheep lined most of the lanes.
Stonehenge, one of the most famous sites in the world, was a little disappointing to me. It's location in the middle of a field surrounded by chain-link fencing and flanked by traffic surprised me. We opted for the "recession" tour and took photographs outside the fence, not understanding why anyone would pay more to get a few steps closer.

The busy road leading to Stonehenge.
I mentioned in my prior post that we became lost on numerous occasions. The first time happened on our way from Stonehenge to Bath. Imagine our shock and disbelieft when we thought we were nearing Bath only to be met with the familiar view of Stonehenge again! After a third stop for directions and a nice lunch at The Bell at Standerwick, we finally made it to Bath just in time to be among the day's last visitors to the Bath Spa.

For two thousand years, Bath has been a spa town, built around Britain’s only hot mineral springs. The Romans were the first to realize the value of the hot mineral water and built their religious spa of Aquae Sulis around the three springs in the 16th century. The water still pools among the ruins but is untreated and smells worse than rotten potatoes. Our audio tour was fascinating and educational and we left imagining health-seeking kings and queens reclined in rest and relaxation centuries ago.

Bath Spa

We drove around the crowded city and visited a few sites recommended in our guide book including Circus and Royal Crescent. We also experienced the romance of late evening when we happened upon a sunset wedding, the bride and groom giddy as their photographer captured their special day on the lawn of an ancient church.

We returned to Burton-on-the-Water very late to find all of the pubs' kitchens closed. However, we managed to pick up Chinese take away (known to Americans as take out) and excitingly discussed our plans for the following day.

Sunday dawned clear and cold and we traveled north to Broadway where we walked through the village and later ate lunch. Alan was feeling adventurous and had a "when in Rome attitude" when he ordered steak and kidney pie. One bite and he instantly regretted his choice. I ate chicken soup and laughed as he managed to choke down one of England's most-loved dishes.

High (Main) Street in Broadway
Regretfully, our plans to meet Alan's cousin, Gerald, and his wife in Oxford fell through. But that bad luck turned into good luck as we then had the opportunity to tour Blenheim Palace, the birthplace and burial site of Sir Winston Churchill. Blenheim Palace is currently home to the 11th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and is set in 2100 acres of beautiful parkland. This magnificent palace is surrounded by sweeping lawns, award-winning formal gardens, and a stunning lake.

Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace gardens
We arrived back in Burton-on-the-Water just in time for our dinner reservation at Rose Tree where we enjoyed tender, roasted duck and freshly grilled steak.

Day two was often frustrating due to getting lost, unfamiliar driving situations, and heavy traffic, but that was easily outweighed by the beauty of Broadway and the splendor of Blenheim. I'll continue later with the remainder of our time in The Cotswolds and our arrival in London.