Cool house!

Dickens house1
Love this house we saw in Canterbury! Take a look at the front door. The quote above the door is by one of my favorite authors, Charles Dickens. He may not have written it about this particular house, but all of Kent is Dickens country.

“…a very old house bulging out over the road…leaning forward, trying to see who was passing on the narrow pavement below…”

If you haven’t read Dickens, or haven’t read him in a very long time, treat yourself. I read Bleak House recently and absolutely loved it (after struggling through the first chapter – don’t give up!). He wrote some of the best characters in the history of literature, and their names are priceless.

Dickens house2

Dig it

excavation in Canterbury

excavation in Canterbury

During any construction project in this part of the world, whenever you dig you have to do so gingerly. You never know what’s going to turn up – a Roman wall, Iron Age utensils, the bones of Richard III. You gotta love a country with that much history, although I’m sure that the individuals paying for the construction don’t always appreciate it.

Making do

We are in our final rental property, a cute little flat on the grounds of a former castle. We are actually in what would have been a gatehouse, just inside an entrance that leads into a courtyard around which are located several newly renovated flats. Very cute!

As we have found with almost every property we have rented, there are shortcomings. There may only be one or two properties out of the 19 we’ve rented that have provided everything we need, but we’ve learned to ask the owner or property manager when we need something. Typically they are very happy to accommodate as a good review of their rental property could ride on it. Occasionally we have been told that what we requested will not be provided by the owner, and that’s okay. You never know until you ask, right? In that situation, we have to make do.

At first we were a little put off by having to make do. How, for example, does one make coffee without a coffee maker? Most places have provided a French press coffee maker, which I use at home. Brilliant! Very easy to brew coffee as every flat has an electric kettle, a British must-have. A rental may not have a TV, but it will have an electric kettle. (A Brit told us that putting the kettle on goes a lot farther toward settling nerves than the actual tea does.) But this flat does not have a French press, nor did the owner seem excited about running out to purchase one. I’m beginning to think that the Brits just don’t understand why Americans can’t drink instant coffee, like they do. If they only knew how spoiled we’ve become with a fresh latte available on every American street corner.

And how does one dry their laundry when the clothes dryer removes only 90% of the moisture from clothes? (These combination washer/dryers we’ve encountered are really not very effective dryers.) You can’t fold them and put them away when they’re still damp. This flat, unlike most, has no clothes drying rack, or clothes horse as the Brits call them, to allow clothes to air dry. Actually, I’m surprised; a clothes horse seems to be second only to the electric kettle in their list of essential appliances. They really are wonderful things. I have several at home, and use them regularly. Mine, however, are not nearly as fancy as the ones here. I’m envious.


But then we came to enjoy the challenge of finding a work-around. This is what happens when engineers travel, as my friend Cynthia so aptly put it!

I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that I was able to simulate the French press process, more or less, with a saucepan and a sieve, and we’ve found that a boiler room makes a great place to dry clothes. We are happy campers.


a bit tight for five nights

a bit tight for five nights

Last week I reported on a near fiasco with our flat reservation in Plymouth, which turned into a success story in Cornwall. Turns out not all fiascos can be avoided. Here’s a story that lends a bit of reality to our otherwise happy adventures.

We left Cornwall a week ago, bound for the Salisbury/Stonehenge area. Our rented flat was in the remote village of Dinton, adjacent to National Trust land. The property was owned by the cutest looking elderly couple and a brother-in-law – all smiles for the camera in their profile – and it was called Honeysuckle Homestead. Does it get any sweeter than that?

Only the sweet little trio wasn’t there when we arrived. In fact, they didn’t own the property any longer. And the new owners weren’t expecting us, and had rented out the flat to a family of three. They were nice enough to offer us a room in their adjoining B&B at the same rate. We didn’t even know there was a B&B on the property. Or an RV park. And that bucolic scene they painted in their listing didn’t take into account the train track that ran parallel to the property. Buyer beware, especially when it comes to shopping online.

Let me take a moment to talk about accommodation reviews. Of course the listings are going to pump sunshine, so I read the reviews forwards and backwards scrutinizing every word for hints as to what’s really going on. But airbnb reviews are very short and sweet, for the most part, and I didn’t understand why until I got here. One reason is that most reviewers I read were Brits, and Brits are just painfully polite. For the most part, they find it very uncomfortable to say anything negative. You’ve gotta love ’em for that. But it doesn’t help when trying to reserve accommodations. Another reason is that airbnb allows you to write a public review and also a second, private review which only the owner of the property will see. So dirty laundry is not usually aired in front of the airbnb shopper.

In hindsight, there were only four reviews of Honeysuckle Homestead on airbnb – all variations of “Nice place, nice hosts.” A bright red, flapping flag should have gone up.

I don’t really care to relive this in more detail, so I will just say that between the railroad track maintenance that went on from somewhere around 1:00 in the morning until the trains resumed again around dawn both nights – think jack hammers and incessant diesel engines – and no hot water on the second morning, we called it quits after two nights (out of our reserved five). We found two other places to spend the other three nights. It was a bit choppy as far as packing up and moving on so frequently, something we tried to avoid this trip, but it beats the rhythmical hum of a diesel engine in the night.

Alfred the Great

King Alfred the Great

King Alfred the Great

Now here’s a king of England you don’t hear much about, especially surprising given that he is the only British monarch ever to have “the Great” put after his name. So why don’t we hear about this guy more often? Because he was from the pre-Norman era (Battle of Hastings – 1066, and all that, as the Brits would say). You’ve probably heard mention of the Battle of Hastings, but why? Many historians consider it to be a major turning point in British history. Until the Normans (from Normandy, on the continent, in what is today France) conquered England in 1066, England was pretty much an isolated island without benefit of easy proximity to the more advanced civilizations in the rest of Europe and around the Mediterranean. The Normans literally brought a boatload of know-how to the shores of England.

Not that the Anglo-Saxons were happy about it. Although they yielded without much of a fight to the Normans – perhaps because they didn’t have the same advances in the technology of warfare, such as it was – they resisted Norman culture for centuries. And if the novel Ivanhoe had any basis in historical accuracy, they mourned the death of their greatest king, Alfred, for centuries after he was gone. Alfred was an educated man, and was known for the great strides he made in bringing education and justice to his people. And for keeping those pesky Vikings from invading England. If it hadn’t been for Alfred, the Normans may have had Viking warriors to contend with in 1066, and who knows where we would be today. Good to see that someone still acknowledges his contributions.

Dream realized

Hardy's boyhood cottage

Hardy’s boyhood cottage

If you read my earlier posts for this trip, you know that the seed of it was sown when I was introduced to British literature at about 13 or 14. Since reading about pasties and moors, I was compelled to see them for myself. No amount of reading or research was going to give me the knowledge of experience.
Hardy's desk

Hardy’s desk

The other day I got to experience something from the eyes of my favorite British author, Thomas Hardy. While visiting the cottage he grew up in as a boy and young man, I sat at his writing desk and looked out the same window he did for inspiration as he wrote about the people and the heath beyond. I was seeing a few more trees than Mr. Hardy did 150 years ago, but it was the same frame from which he extracted the setting for my favorite of his novels, Far from the Madding Crowd.

After visiting his boyhood home, we drove 10 miles or so to the house he built at the age of 45, when he had made enough money as a writer to quit his job as an architect and live off of his writing royalties. I am so glad that he experienced success as an author while he was still alive. In my mind, he deserved it.

Hardy's home after success

Hardy’s home after success

the Spire

Salisbury cathedral

Salisbury cathedral

Look familiar? It was the subject of one of John Constable’s paintings, and just about at this angle too. What makes Salisbury cathedral so unusual is that 1) it was completed in 38 years (rather than centuries), and 2) it has a spire. Many cathedrals were built with a tower that was intended to have a spire on top of it, when money was available, but typically it never happened. The spire was added 100 years after construction of the cathedral began, but at least it happened.

The spire is beautiful, the highest in England at 404 feet. It was a feat of medieval engineering (1320) to get that sucker up there, and despite efforts to straighten it over the centuries, it’s still not perfectly vertical. William Golding (of Lord of the Flies fame) even wrote a novel about it called, appropriately enough, The Spire.

I think this is the most beautiful cathedral we’ve seen so far, and the spire definitely is a factor. As a bonus, the Chapter House at the cathedral houses one of only four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, and it is the most legible one. The document, which King John was coerced into signing in 1215, was the first to give citizens of England rights. The US constitution borrows heavily from it.

The city of Salisbury itself is fantastic, another place that Fodor’s didn’t do justice. We happened to be there on market day. The open-air market was better than most we’ve seen. And there are many fun shops and restaurants in addition to the market. Queen Elizabeth Gardens and the watermeadows (the flood plains of five converging rivers) are beautiful green spaces. And all this is less than ten miles from Stonehenge. If I ever get back this way, I want to stay here for a good, long time.

Avebury or Stonehenge?

Avebury stone circle

Avebury stone circle

A stone circle is a stone circle. Or is it? Several reviews I read of Stonehenge, the most famous of them all, said the site had become such a tourist Mecca that it was not worth the time and money to see it; chain-link fences around the stones kept visitors at a sizable distance. One review even suggested bringing binoculars!

So when I read that Avebury, a nearby stone circle larger than Stonehenge, was so accessible you could touch the stones, I thought, We will swim against the current and visit Avebury instead.

Avebury was something of a disappointment. The stone circle was so big that the village of Avebury grew up in the middle of it. We could only view a quadrant at a time. And the stones were so irregular that they didn’t appear to have been placed there for any significant reason. They didn’t look like columns from a Neolithic temple; they looked like a Halloween prank.

Stonehenge stone circle

Stonehenge stone circle

I started thinking about Stonehenge, and I just had to see if it was the same. No comparison. First of all, your driving down a winding country road, you crest a hill, and there they are. Right out there on the Salisbury Plain for all the world to see. It caught me so much by surprise that I thought it must be an advertisement, but it was the real thing. As soon as you go through the entrance and up onto the plain, you are right in front of the stones, circling them on a path that is remarkably close. There is no chain-link fence, only a cord about a foot off the ground that quietly suggests you don’t approach the stones.

There is something about being out on that flat expanse of the greenest grass you will ever see with those amazing stones that is just unreal and impossible to describe. It is just like the photos you see, but nothing like them. You can see the texture of the stone and other details. Some of the lintels, the horizontal stones that lie on top the vertical ones, are still there, giving the stones more of the feel of a temple. On top of the solitary vertical stones, you can see a knob where a notch in the lintel had once fit so snugly, like Neolithic Legos. So intricately designed, planned, and carved. So fantastically built.

We may never know how this engineering feat was accomplished, or what the stone circles were for, but that doesn’t bother me. I was fascinated just to walk around them – 360° – to get a view from all angles. Every angle is different. And I timed our visit just right: we got there as late as we could (a half-hour before closing) so we could (almost) see the sun set behind the stones. It’s an experience I will never forget.

Going local

British picnic

British picnic

When we first arrived in Great Britain, we were surprised to see couples sitting in cars in car parks (parking lots, in American English) eating lunch, often from styrofoam takeaway (takeout, in AE) containers. Why would people eat in their cars???

Well, we’ve gone local. Yesterday we found ourselves eating a picnic lunch in our car in Wells, England. Why? We couldn’t find a picnic table from Glastonbury to Wells, two beautiful towns in the lovely Somerset countryside. Couldn’t find a park either, or any other green spot to look at while we munched. So we found the first parking spot we could, and had our lunch as shoppers pounded the pavement around us. Maybe it’s time to go home…before we start saying to-mah-to. ;o)