Cotswolds Treasures

Highclere CastleToday might be the culmination of my British touring moments on this amazing year long journey.  Jason and I took a day-trip to visit two major “must see” attractions: the University of Oxford and the filming locations of the oh-so popular TV series, Downton Abbey.

Premium Tours drove us over an hour outside of London, and our first stop was the prestigious Oxford.  Dating back to 1096, it is the oldest university in the English-speaking world.  With 38 constituent colleges surrounded by lovely expansive grounds, it was an enlightening sight to see.

After being amongst the school of thought, we continued on in the Cotwolds countryside towards the school of period drama!  First we paused in Bampton, Oxfordshire.  This small village is used for exterior scenes of the fictional town of Downton, most notably the Crawley family home, St Mary’s Church and the library archive, which serves as the entrance to the hospital.

Then we came to the show’s treasure, Highclere Castle, home to Lord and Lady Grantham.  In real life, the magnificent Victorian mansion actually belongs to the Carnarvon family, eight generations of aristocrats spanning over 300 years.  Walking through the galleried bedrooms, down the sweeping oak staircase into the saloon, I felt like all of my favorite characters at once!  Having tea underneath the trees on the grand lawns of the property summed up the absolutely awesome experience.

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St Paul’s Cathedral

st paulsAnother lovely day in the city, perfect for another London Walks in another amazing church.  St Paul’s Cathedral was one of the first sights Jason and I saw when we moved to the UK, but we hadn’t yet had the chance to tour inside.  So today I spent the morning learning all about Sir Christopher Wren’s masterpiece.  And while Westminster Abbey holds the number one spot on my list of favorite places of worship, this impressive English Baroque style building is easily number two.

Much less “cluttered” than the Abbey, Wren’s design allows for patrons to focus on prayer and the stunning architecture surrounding them.  In addition, St Paul’s contains a few features that make it beyond special, such as the Memorial Chapel behind the altar that commemorates the 28,000 Americans who died while stationed in the UK during WWII.  Another such attribute is the Dome, one of the largest cathedral domes in the world, measuring 365 feet high.  Within it there are three gallery levels, including the whispering gallery named after the acoustical quirk.  The challenge of climbing all three levels, totaling 528 steps to the highest point, was daunting but totally worth it.  And as if I wasn’t breathless enough after the never-ending spiral staircases and very narrow stairwells, the panoramic view from the balcony, along with the tour, took my breath away.

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Cherry Blossoms

cherry blossomsAs we prepare to head back to the States, I’ve been thinking about things I miss from home.  This time of year, it’s the cherry blossoms blooming in Washington, DC.  But, as the National Cherry Blossom Festival concludes this weekend, I was elated to turn the corner today and find the street lined with pink petals against a background of white houses.  So lovely that Notting Hill has these gorgeous trees, too!  Turns out, there are plenty of places all over London to see them as well, a true sign that spring has sprung.

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Afternoon Tea

teaChecking off another London “must do,” I have now finally experienced proper English tea time!  In the past week, I’ve been twice, and both have been delightful.  It’s true, the British know how to do tea and it’s something I’ve really taken to while living in the UK.  But to actually sit down and be served, well it’s much different than just putting on the kettle in our flat.

For my first taste, I joined friends at The Chesterfield Mayfair hotel, a member of The Tea Guild which denotes outlets serving tea at the highest of standards.  It was a grand dining room with lots of natural light, wood tones and red velvet chairs.  We had a three-tiered display of miniature sandwiches and pastries, each with our own pot from a large selection of brews.  A very elegant, lady-of-leisure affair.

Then today on a lovely spring afternoon in Chelsea, I sat outside the Saatchi Gallery and had a traditional cream tea with a cup of Early Grey and scones.  Here, the scones, often raisin or plain, seem to always come much smaller than what we have in the U.S., but I kind of like their three-bite size, and the clotted cream and strawberry jam are the most delicious garnishes on top.  A much more casual, al fresco affair.  Can’t wait to see where my next tea will be, and just how many I can fit in before leaving!

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Canary Wharf

canarywharf2Now less than two months away from heading back to the States, Jason and I are embracing every moment remaining in this great adventure.  That includes continuing to visit areas of the city we’ve still not seen.  Tonight we were southeast at Canary Wharf, part of the Docklands development on the Thames.  It is a financial hub and home to most of Britain’s skyscrapers, often referred to as a mini Manhattan.  And that, along with its commercial and residential focuses, definitely reminded us of America.  Not to mention the restaurant we dined in, Goodman, a NY-style steakhouse offering USDA corn-fed beef and an extensive Californian wine collection.  The hospitality and lobster mac & cheese added to what can be considered a delicious version of “home” here in England.

Canary Wharf also happens to have a great view of The O2.  So, after dinner, we went down the river to our third and “final” concert at what’s become our favorite entertainment venue in the world.  Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Tour was incredible (wouldn’t expect any less from the President of Pop) and the perfect addition to our very own YOLO (you only London once) memories!

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greenwichWith these first days of spring, I thought it would be the perfect time for a day-trip to Greenwich, London’s maritime center.  And today, the weather agreed!

Guided by London Walks and transported via DLR or Thames river tours, I felt like I was in a place that was much farther than just a half-hour away. Greenwich is chock-full of historical sights, impressive views, and overall tourist delights.  Well, I hit almost all: the architecturally stunning and film-hosting Old Royal Naval College; the Queen’s House; the National Maritime Museum; the majestic Cutty Sark (not just a whisky!); the Visitor Centre complete with in-house brewery.

And while I didn’t make it up the hill to the Royal Observatory, I was still able to see Greenwich’s other claim to fame, the Prime Meridian.  Just a short stroll from the college is the unassuming (and free) Park Vista street.  There, in the middle of the road, are some raised metal dots along with a small, tarnished plaque on the wall.  Standing on zero longitude was pretty cool, as was the entirety of this visit to another one of the UK’s best attractions.

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St. Patrick’s Day

stpattysHappy St. Patty’s Day!  As you can imagine, there are celebrations all over London, in every pub and every borough.  Yesterday, I joined the masses at the city’s main event, the Parade and Festival hosted by the Mayor of London.  It was a sight to see as thousands dressed in green were entertained by Riverdance, folk tunes and gaelic hymns, as Big Ben watched in the background.

Then tonight, to continue with the musical tribute for Ireland’s patron saint,  I went to see the wonderful West End production of The Commitments.  Based on the 1987 novel and award-winning 1991 film, it’s the story of working class musicians who form a raucous soul band in Dublin.  The cast at the Palace Theatre were phenomenal, and performed great classic songs with such amazing energy that both Motown and the Emerald Isle would be proud.  The entire audience was on their feet in the end, singing and dancing along.  With pastimes like this, who wouldn’t want to be Irish for a day?!

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London Eye

london eyeAnother major UK attraction has been checked off my list!  Some friends had a very brief stop on their way to Switzerland and asked “what’s the best way to see London in an hour.”  The (somewhat reluctant) answer?  London Eye, of course.  In a thirty minute once-around trip, rising 442 feet above the city, you can see 25 miles away from the top of one of the world’s largest observation wheels.  And even though the scene is a bit of an overpriced tourist trap, there is simply no better view on a clear, beautiful night in Londontown.

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London Expos

expoIn the past week, I’ve been to three different events in London and it’s been a wonderful reminder of my life before we moved abroad.  It was exciting and impressive to see how Britain does what I felt I did pretty well back in the States!

First, in celebration of International Women’s Day, I attended the WOW: Women of the World Festival held at the Southbank Centre.  Focusing on prominent topics facing today’s women, the featured speaker was Malala Yousafzai, schoolgirl activist and survivor. She eloquently discussed gender inequality, bringing about change, and was truly inspirational.

Next, an exhibition right in my wheelhouse, the International Confex at Olympia, a 19th century conference center in Kensington.  Confex is the UK’s leading expo for the meetings and events industry, providing professionals educational and buying opportunities alike.  The floor plan was abundant and the design was first-rate.  I’d always wondered what it’d be like to attend when the brochure would come across my desk in Virginia, and now I know!

And finally, the Affordable Art Fair at Battersea Evolution, a flexible space situated in picturesque Battersea Park.  The fair allows for novices or connoisseurs to browse and buy art from 110 participating UK galleries, all ranging from 40-4,000 GBP.  It was a lovely show, unlike any I’ve ever been to.  However, because the prices weren’t USD, it wasn’t that reasonable for me!  But they do have a show in New York, and I will certainly look for something similar in Washington, DC.  Regardless, it was a perfect example of why events are so important; they expose us to a very enriched world.

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Tower of London

towerConsidered one of the “must-see” sights in the city, the husband and I finally went to the Tower of London today.  This perfectly preserved medieval fortress sits on the River Thames and is site of the bloodiest events in Britain’s history.  It also holds a plethora of attractions, requiring at least a few hours to get the full experience.

We started our visit by heading straight for the Crown Jewels, in order to avoid the long lines that typically begin there.  On a moving walkway in a darkly lit room, we passed non-glare cases that sparkled from within, containing some of the world’s most famous and largest cut diamonds including the Cullinan and the Koh-i-Noor in the crown of Queen Elizabeth.  It is truly a dazzling display, literally, and one not to be missed!

Then we took the ever-popular Yeoman Warder (“Beefeater”) tour to learn about the Tower’s tales of intrigue and death.  The guides have formed the Royal Bodyguard since at least 1509 and ours, Barney(!), provided pure entertainment and proof of why these men are such iconic symbols of England.

Finally, we passed the legendary ravens and climbed the steps into the White Tower, a prominent castle built by William the Conqueror to awe, terrify and deter invaders.  Presently, it houses a magnificent four-floor collection of the Royal Armouries, as well as the architecturally stunning Chapel of St John. Upon exiting, we climbed another set of stairs to the Wall Walk for incredible views of the Tower Bridge.  It was an abundance of sights to see all together, but one that absolutely completes the highlights of London.

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