Tag Archives: England

1 Year Later…

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Quiet morning amongst the cobblestones. 

It’s been one year since my last blog post.  Wow! That’s so lame.

I have journals and drafts of new blog posts that have just been sitting, collecting dust for the last year.  I need to commit to getting those posted, because I have awesome memories to share.

However, my reason for logging in today is that I have news…I’m going back to Europe!  Not an extended stay this time, just a week in London in the spring, but I’m still ecstatic to be returning to one of my favorite cities!  Plus, this time I’m not traveling alone–I’m taking my sister with me, which makes it even better.  We booked our tickets a few days ago, and since then I’ve been pouring over my lists and journals from last year.  I’m making new charts of things I wanted to do and didn’t have time for, and things that I want to show her.  It’s already shaping up to be a packed week!

So in prepping for this next trip to England, I thought I’d share a few of the photos I took last year on the last leg of my journey.  In fact, it was 1 year ago today that I arrived in Bath, after crossing the English channel via the Caen-Portsmouth overnight ferry.  It’s strange having a year could go by so quickly!

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Last year: early morning stroll by the River Avon in Bath, England

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Autumn light.


A (Sunny) Day in London Town

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Good Morning, London!

Okay, so I’ve been to Europe a few times and have heard all sorts of horror stories about European train strikes, but I’d never experienced one until a little over a week ago in London.  I made my trek into the city (which took an agonizingly long time-2.5 hours to go 40 miles, and I thought Seattle traffic was bad) only to discover that no trains were running and all the tube stations were closed (hence the reason for the hellishly long bus ride).  I had a rather aggressive itinerary for the day, which made the tube kind of necessary, but rather than stress over my list I revised my plans, and can I just say, it was one of the best days I’ve ever had traveling!

Lesson to be had: it’s great to have a plan, but don’t let everything depend on it.  Sometimes you have a better time by just going with the flow. So, my new itinerary, which I entitled “Rachel Hoofs London” began at the Marble Arch bus stop, which was perfect as it allowed me to explore London’s Mayfair district.

I like to do my research on a city or country quite extensively before I go, but when I get there, I have the most fun when I have a short list of “sites” and can spend most of my time just exploring.  As it happened, this day was PERFECT for that.  Wandering through Mayfair, I was generally going in the direction of Soho and Leicester Square, but I got to walk through delightful little squares and gardens, including Berkeley Square (where, sadly, there were no singing nightingales–maybe it would have helped if I actually was there at night), and a delightful little piazza called Shepherds Market that has all sorts of neat shops and pubs, most of which I didn’t explore because it was mid morning and I had so much to do and see.  A definite must on my return list though!

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Street Scene in Mayfair. How very English!

Walking through Shepherds Market I ended up on Piccadilly Street with all sorts of window shopping opportunities! I would have loved to have pretended I was a posh Londoner, but my camera equipment on my back and my jeans and t-shirt kind of gave me away.  Still, I popped into Fortnum and Mason’s (hey, if it’s good enough for the queen, right?) and Burlington arcade, where I treated myself to a couple macarons from Ladurée.  Bliss. 

Continuing along Piccadilly eventually brought me to Piccadilly Circus and then Leicester Square and the West End.  Behold the birthplace of my startled dreams!  Now, I was on a mission that morning: I needed to get to the Garrick theatre to try and snag a ticket to see Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh in A Winter’s Tale in October.  I’ll be spending a few days in London this fall before flying back to the U.S. and wanted to see that West End production.  Sadly though,  A Winter’s Tale was completely sold out for October, but there was another Kenneth Branagh production that’s on alternating nights, and I got a ticket for that one!

Yes, darlings, I finally get to see my Much Ado About Nothing hero (pun intended) in the flesh!  Hurray for flexible plans!  I may need to buy a new copy  of Much Ado for him to sign at the stage door, as mine is currently tucked away in a storage unit in Seattle.

So, my main mission was accomplished, but part of me still wanted to catch the 2:00 Old Kensington walk I’d originally planned on.  However, Kensington is not exactly near the West End and without the tube running, that left me with buses.  Now, I can navigate my way around any metro system like a champ.  It’s one of my unique gifts, plus  they have clear maps with the stops and the different lines.  If such a thing for the London bus system exists, I didn’t find it.  I wandered around the bus stops at Piccadilly Circus and eventually ended up walking to Trafalgar Square.  By this point I was getting frustrated, and I only had about an hour to make it to Kensington anyway, with no way of knowing how long the bus would take.  So I took a step back and remembered my new plan–and let the Kensington walk go.

Instead, I decided to give the National Gallery another chance:  this time they had no room closures and I was able to see my Degas and Renoir (the Monet was still on loan somewhere).  I also had a lovely lunch in the Gallery’s cafe and officially rescinded it’s nickname as The Gallery of Disappointments.

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View from the National Gallery: Trafalgar Square and Big Ben

Looking at a map, I realized I was only about a 20 minute walk or so from the British Museum, and I figured that would be a worthwhile excursion.  That 20 minute walk ended up taking me considerably longer because apparently I’m like Dug from Up when it comes to getting distracted in London.

My first discovery was a little street just around the corner from the Garrick’s stage door: Cecil Court.  This may be my favorite discovery (thus far) in all of London.  This tiny little cobblestone street is just bookshop after bookshop.  Most of them selling used and antique volumes.  One delightful shop specializing in children’s books had an honest to goodness actual Dalek (half hidden by a bald eagle statue).  Another shop gave me Oxford flashbacks with its antique prints and maps. Sadly (luckily?) several shops were closed, otherwise I might have spent my whole day there!

Now off of my designated route, I began wandering through Covent Garden without much rhyme or reason, vaguely headed in what I thought might be the direction of the British Museum. More cobblestone streets decorated with bunting called invitingly to me, and I was detoured again when I came to Seven Dials, another discovery my careful research failed to uncover!

Seven Dials is an intersection in Covent Garden where 7 roads all converge on this one point.  Down each road you can find boutiques, restaurants, and theaters.  I chose one at random and ended up at the Donmar Warehouse.  I stopped and took a picture, even though Tom Hiddleston wasn’t currently performing anything there.

By this point I was well off my original course, but I figured the British Museum was a big enough landmark that at some point I’d see a sign pointing me in the right direction (this turned out to be true) and after a scenic walking tour of Bloomsbury, in which I fancied myself meeting up with Virginia Woolf and her pals, I finally found it!

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At last! The Great Court of the British Museum.

Okay, here’s the thing with me and museums.  I love the idea of museums, but generally after an hour or so I’ve seen the highlights and I’m done (there are a few art museums that are exceptions to this rule).  Truth be told, spending hours wandering around and reading all the little plaques describing each artifact bores me to death.  This is one of the reasons why I love London: because there are no entry fees to the major museums I can go in and get my quick fix without feeling like I threw my money away or feeling compelled to stay because I just spent a bunch of money.  Thank you, London!

So, I saw the highlights of the Egyptian and Greek collections and I was perfectly satisfied.  However, let me tell you that it was thrilling to standing in front of the reliefs that once decorated the Parthenon and the statues that stood in Thebes over two thousand years ago.  It’s an experience definitely worth having, and it’s marvelous to see the artistry and skill of those ancient civilizations.   

Having looked my fill at the museum’s exhibits (and really, museum and ancient history buffs could really spend a full day or more there, there’s a reason this is a world class museum), I continued my exploration of London.  Covent Garden had all sorts of streets and shops, and theatre marquees to marvel at.  My wandering eventually led me back to Leicester Square where I finally got to sit and allowed myself to be entertained by street musicians.

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My namesake! Actually this was part of an old hospital, but still..a fun little discovery near Covent Garden.

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Exploring a Covent Garden flower market.

In Chinatown, I found a wonderful little hole in the wall place serving delicious homemade dumplings, and by the time I finished, the evening crowds in Soho were really picking up.  It was so much fun just to wander and feel the energy of that neighborhood: tourists and theatre goers and people meeting up after work.  I didn’t venture into the red light areas, though I’m sure that had it’s own ambiance as well.  Still, it was loud and crazy and lively and oh so much fun just to allow myself to be swept up in the party.

Gradually the scene shifted as I moved from Soho back into neighboring Mayfair.  Here the crowds thinned and the atmosphere became less rowdy and more refined.  I began seeing people dressed up for a nice evening out at a private club or exclusive restaurant.  Most of the high end retailers were closing up for the night, but now the bars and cafes were opening up for the evening crowd.  A couple art galleries were hosting events with attendees dressed to impress, and outside a couple of the very posh Mayfair hotels paparazzi were gathering (I found out later that it was most likely for Nicky Hilton’s wedding).

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Twilight in Mayfair

I returned to Marble Arch to catch my bus home, but was once again detoured along the way at Grosvenor Square where they had all sorts of activities going on: a private party, a concert stage, and an outdoor movie screen!  Had I been staying in the city, I probably would have tried to join the festivities, but as it was I needed to catch my bus to go back to the farm.

Still, for a day that didn’t follow my original plan at all, it was still one of the best days of my trip thus far.  I absolutely love London, and getting to explore it on foot was a marvelous opportunity that allowed me to discover areas I otherwise might have missed.

London, I can’t wait for October; we still have so much to do!


Wondrous Oxford: Delightful Discoveries

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The Bridge of Sigh’s at Oxford University

When I went to Oxford on Monday, it was with practically no preconceived notions.  But if the National Gallery was the Gallery of Disappointments, Oxford became the Emporium of All Thing Glorious.  It’s a virtual treasure trove of delightful shops, buildings, and a magical (FREE!!!) exhibit of my darkest bibliophile fantasies.  I was having so much fun I ran out of time to buy stuff, so another trip will be happening shortly.

Upon disembarking our bus on High Street, with no map, and only two destinations in mind (The Great Hall of Christ Church College and Alice’s Shop), my friend, Hannah, and I decided our best bet was to follow a young man in a black cape who looked like he knew where he was going.  And bless his heart, he led us right into Oxford University.  The first little bit was spent wandering and oohing over the gorgeous architecture whilst simultaneously searching for a tourist information office to buy a map.

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Handel’s original conductor’s score of The Messiah.

But we found something better: a library gift shop!  And it turns out the library gift shop was in the same building as the aforementioned FREE exhibit.  We wandered through the cafeteria and…tad-a! The Magna Carta just happened to be there (one of the 4 copies still in existence from the 1217 reissue).  But that wasn’t all…we continued exploring only to find a room housing all sort of delious literary and culture treasures, including HANDEL’S ORIGINAL CONDUCTOR’S SCORE FOR THE MESSIAH!!!  The score used for the first performance in 1742, with Handel’s own notations. I have never been moved to tears by a document like that one moved me.  And to top it off, next to it was one of Jane Austen’s notebooks.  All of this was part of a special exhibition called Marks of Genius, featuring the best of the Bodleian Libraries collection.

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We were both in such awe, it took us until we got home to realize (after reading the pamphlet we took on the way out) that there was a whole other room that we missed completely!  Another reason to go back.  But boy did I feel dumb.  New travel rule: read the literature before leaving the museum, even especially if it is a surprise discovery!

That right there would have made the whole day worth it.  But we were just getting started.  Crossing the street we entered the courtyard of the Bodleian Library itself.  Turns out that you can only go in the library with a tour, and that they charge you for.

Boo.  As a general rule, I don’t like tour groups (there are some exceptions, special interest tours can be fascinating, but general museum tours I tend to find boring). I also have a philosophy that all libraries should be free to public, as I think books should be accessible to anyone.  But they didn’t ask my opinion, and they’d already given us a wonderful free preview, so we walked away.

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Taking it all in: exploring the courtyards of Oxford’s libraries.

Meandering up the street we finally found the tourist office.  Okay, there may have been a detour at a bookstore-but in all fairness they had a KILLER display of To Kill a Mockingbird and a promo for Go Set a Watchman, how could I not stop?  At the TI we looked at a map for Christ Church College and Alice’s Shop (conveniently across the street from Christchurch) and continued along our merry way down Cornmarket Street.

One of my favorite things about England is how they still retain the old, quaint names for so many streets, villages, and houses.  Cornmarket Street was a blast back into modern culture.  Gone were the independent stores.  This was chain store central, handy, I suppose, but nothing that made us stop.  I can go into a Gap store anytime.

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Visitor’s entrance to Christ Church College.

When we reached Christ Church, we paid our admission fees, only to find out after the fact that the Great Hall was closed!  We arrived in Oxford with only two destinations on the list and that was one of them. The Great Hall (Dining Hall), was a primary filming location for the Harry Potter films.  It also features a gorgeous stained glass window dedicated to Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carrol) and Alice Liddell, who was the inspiration for his most famous work.  So something else to reserve for a later date.  I should stop having lists of “must sees.” England doesn’t seem that interested in my list or schedule!

We did tour the church itself (the only building we could actually go inside).  It was beautiful and had a lovely memorial to the students and faculty lost in the Great War and World War II.

Alice’s Shop, across the road, was right next door to a used and rare bookshop, so that was handy!  Alice’s shop is dedicated to all things Alice in Wonderland.  Actually, tomorrow Oxford is celebrating 150th Anniversary celebration of the book’s publication.  The shop itself is a former candy and shop that was frequented by the real Alice Liddell and her sisters.

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The final shop we found was an antique map and art print store.  Oh heavenly choirs, I could have spent hours in there!  As it is there is an antique map that is still calling my name.  I just have to decide if I want to part with that much cash in order to make it mine.  It’s a hand drawn 19th century map of Ireland, and it has Enistymon on it. I want it.  And Sunday is my birthday…we shall see!

By this point we were FAMISHED.  Hannah, being the excellent food guide that she is, found a cafe nearby with good reviews and local products.  The bonus?  It was in an old church!  Sadly though, we MISSED the window for lunch (to be fair, it was close to 5:00 at this point.  So we had to “settle” for tea and scones instead.  I don’t think we minded too much, especially since we got to enjoy our meal in the garden with gorgeous views of Radcliffe’s Camera (another library that’s for students, not visitors…)

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Afternoon tea at the Vaults and Garden Cafe.

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Radcliffe’s Camera

After quenching our thirst and hunger, I was charged up again, but sadly, Oxford was not.  By this point it was near 6, and everything was shutting down for the evening.  We took a scenic route back to the bus stop and then headed for home.  Riding the bus, my tummy full of scones and jam, I mentally compiled a list of things to come back for.

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Girl Explores London

Last week, after being in England for a full 6 days, I FINALLY made it to London!  Another dream come true on this trip!  The farm I’m staying at is only 40 miles or so from the city and close to transit lines, so I tried pacing myself, knowing I could return frequently.  I still covered a lot of ground though, and by the end of the day my feet and I agreed we’d done ourselves proud!

First stop: Big Ben and the Houses of Parliment!

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View of Big Ben and Westminster Bridge from the South Bank.

Technically, I saw a bit of Westminster (including the abbey) before arriving at this top destination.  It took me a bit  to find my way from Victoria station.

I was lucky enough to arrive a little before 8:00 in the morning, which meant I still had some beautiful morning light, and the streets were relatively tourist free.  Mostly I was surrounded by people in power suits bustling off to work.  My favorite time in a new city is in the early morning before the crowds take over.  It gives me an entirely different perspective of a place.

I followed the Rick Steves’ audio walking tour of Westminster, which is was a delightful introduction to London and full of interesting facts.  It was easy to follow, beginning at Westminster Bridge and ending at Trafalgar Square.  The only problem was that my day started so early that when I reached Trafalgar Square at the end of the tour, it was still over an hour before the National Gallery opened.  It was for the best though.  I was starving so I killed time by scouting down breakfast at a nearby restaurant.

When the gallery opened at 10, I was able to walk right on in.  One of the benefits of free museums is no queues!  Sadly that was the high point, as none of the 4 paintings I especially wanted to see were on display.  Due to a staff shortage many of the rooms were closed.  I was able to peer through a door and see my Degas from a distance, but that was as close as I got.  Rather than staying in the Gallery of Disappointments, as it’s now been dubbed, I left to take a stroll down the Mall to stake out a good vantage point for…The changing of the guard! 

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I had been on the fence for awhile about this particular British tradition.  Watching a bunch of men in fancy uniforms essentially punching in and out for the day in front of the palace didn’t seem like it was worth all the hype.  However, I had the time and was in the right area, so I figured why not?  I’d also read up enough to know that I could stand along the Mall between St. James Palace and Buckingham Palace to see the fanfare in street and not fight the ginormous crowds in front of the palace gates, so that’s what I did.

There were enough guided tours beginning to camp out along the street that I knew when I was in the right area.  I joined up with one of them that had a prime spot and waited for about 10-15 minutes next to a group of tourists from Mississippi.  Hearing that strong southern accent at such a British event tickled my sense of irony no end.

The parade itself was short and sweet.  We watched the horse guards retire and then the procession of the band heading toward the palace.  I got my pictures to satisfy my travel portfolio and I was done.  While seeing these men in their, admittedly impressive, uniforms was definitely a spectacle, I think I enjoyed the crowd watching even more.

With item two checked off my list, I strolled through St. James Park to catch the tube to…Borough Market. 

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Borough Market is London’s oldest and best food market, dating back to the 13th century.  Today it is a gastronome’s paradise, filled with food stalls selling anything and everything your pallate desires: seafood, nuts, pastries, meats, produce, cheeses, breads, ethnic foods, olives, wines, and more. The smells and colors and textures, not to mention the tastes (hurray for free samples!) are an assault on the senses in the best of ways.  Between sampling, photographing, and stopping for lunch, it was a perfect way to kill a couple of hours before moving on to St. Paul’s Cathedral.

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This is one of my favorite shots thus far, taken while sitting on the lawn behind St. Paul’s.

It turned out I misread the start time of my London Blitz walking tour, so I had an extra 30 minutes to kill, which I did quite happily lounging in the shade on the back lawn of St. Paul’s. Yes, there were lots of pigeons.  Yes, I was singing “Feed the Birds” in my head the entire time.

I met up with my walking group easily enough at the appointed time.  The tour was through London Walks, and they have a variety of walks focused on numerous topics and/or areas of interest throughout the city.  Their guides are all highly qualified, and I had heard wonderful things, so I was very excited about this walk. I’m pleased to say that it lived up to the hype!  We spent a couple of hours walking around the City of London.  Most of the remnants of the Blitz are gone now with new buildings taking the place of the destroyed ones decades ago, but you can still see shrapnel scars on the exterior of St. Paul’s and there’s a lovely garden nearby in what once was a church that was destroyed during the air raids.  Now only 3 skeletal walls remain.

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Remains of Christchurch Greyfriars in The City of London. Now a garden, this church was destroyed by bombs during the London Blitz and never rebuilt.

London is full of war memorials and monuments to important people in it’s history, but there was one memorial we saw on our tour that touched me more than any of them.  It was the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice in Postman’s Park.  This little memorial was set up to commerate the selfless deeds of ordinary citizens.  Reading through the various plaques was quite touching, and many of them dated back to the late 19th century.  Especially moving were the plaques dedicated to children, some no more than 10 or 11 years old who died saving a younger friend or sibling from catastrophe.  I never would have found that park or memorial on my own, which is one of the reasons I find these walking tours such a great value.

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Touching tribute on the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice

Following the walk I was able to go into St. Paul’s for their Evensong service.  While there is a fee for touring the Cathedral, it’s free of charge to go in for worship services, and I enjoyed sitting in that marvelous space (sorry, no photos allowed) and listening to the service. One thing I wasn’t aware of, not being Catholic, is how much standing and sitting is done during the service!  My aching feet, which had been literally pounding the pavement all day, were a bit dismayed that they had to continue to stand during a good portion of the evensong.  Still, it was a nice way to close my first day in London.

Coming up next on Rachie Discovers London: exploring the boroughs of Kensington and/or Hampstead, and possibly a visit to Westminster Abbey!


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