I spent this last long weekend in England with two of my close friends. One of the major advantages of living in Europe is the ease with which you can travel between the European countries. I jumped on the Eurostar at noon on Friday afternoon and a little over two hours later arrived at St Pancras station in central London.
After a long lunch and cider filled afternoon in a pub with a mutual friend, I met up with my hosts. Ana and Tyler live outside the city these days having moved from the big metropolis toward a small town called Bedford, which is a lovely township on a river’s edge about 40 minutes by train from central London.
A couple of years ago, Ana and I bonded over the fact that we both love all things old. All that would remind us of Downton Abbey days or an episode out of a Jane Austen novel. Practically each time I go to visit, we plan a day excursion. This weekend it was to Stamford, Burghley House (just 1 mile from Stamford), Stratford upon-Avon and Birmingham.
Let me try to make some sense of this itinerary.
As I mentioned, Ana and I love historical stuff: old towns, thatched rooftops, cobblestone streets, 17th century pubs – old stuff! And Tyler loves to drive. So together we made plans that involved a lovely Saturday drive in the countryside, destination somewhere OLD.
Stamford was that someplace old. It’s a quaint stone town with a river running through, reminiscent of Cambridge minus the red-brick buildings and the university. We lunched in an old pub by the riverside, opportunely called the Riverside Café, then shuffled our way through the cobblestone streets, through the park, and over the bridge.
Our next stop was Burghley House, which is not a house at all but a castle. It was built by William Cecil, 1st Baron of Burghley back in the late 1500s. If you have ever seen the film Anonymous (the story of an alternative author of Shakespeare’s works) you will know that Cecil was Queen Elizabeth’s top advisor. Well, this house shows how grateful her majesty must have been!
The tour boasts 15 magnificent staterooms, beds where the Queen slept, an impressive collection of paintings of all the important people in Britain in that era – right from Henry VIII up to Oliver Cromwell and Charles I. The library is a dream; floor to ceiling shelves with leaded glass doors and leather-bound volumes stretching out for as far as one can see. But it is the mural painted staircase and ballroom (Heaven Room) that most mesmerized me. Entire rooms – the size, by the way, of my apartment in Paris – brushed like the Sistine Chapel. The staircase is called Hell Staircase and is a mural of the devil opening hell to those who have fallen. This reminds us of how pious the Cecils were at that time.
The park is simply gigantic. I don’t know how many hectares it encompasses, but it could rival Downton, I’m sure. And there are deer. Deer just hanging around without fences or gates. Great big daddy deer, the stags, with enormous antlers and little baby Bambi deer eating their way through the fields. To the other side of the park is the secret garden, or what I called the secret garden. In fact, it’s a surprise water garden, which would be fun for little ones during the warm season.
By this point in the afternoon, Ana, Tyler and I had decided that we wanted to have Indian food for dinner. Those of you who are familiar with Great Britain will know that there is one place to have proper Indian and that is Birmingham (or so I learned this weekend). So we decided to stop through Stratford-upon-Avon on our way to Birmingham. Hence the rather spansive tour through the midlands.
Stratford was a real treat. My little sister is a Shakespearian theatre specialist and we as a family have been to Stratford, Ontario for their theater seasons many a time. I had never seen the real deal, however, so we three toured through the town, walked by the Royal Shakespeare Company theaters and the house where Shakespeare was born. Then, as is tradition, we dropped by the oldest pub in town (circa 1600) for a pint.
If I didn’t love France so much, I’d move to England. I love the emerald greenness of their fields, the funny way they eat their vowels and the politeness of the manners. Not all of which I find in my now native France.
A slide show, so you might see a little better what I mean: