The England I Love
It is entirely possible I have always had a touch of Anglomania. I grew up loving the Beatles, obsessed with Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare, dominantly attracted to British actors and always preferred an Earl Grey Tea over a New York coffee. The first opportunity I had to actually go to England was on a choir tour my senior year in high school. We participated in the Harrogate Music Festival with many other chorus' from around the world, singing in cathedrals, retirement homes, and even in the streets during snow storms. It was magical. I still remember visiting the town of Ripon and singing "On My Own" in its massive cathedral and then wandering the vast winding alleyways lined with shops. It was my first time crossing the Atlantic, my introduction to Europe and a shaper of many things to come. My parents flew out to surprise me and when my group left to go back home, we proceeded on to London to see the opening night of Rent and see the sights. I knew I would be back someday.
Two years later, I was half way through my college career and I got the opportunity to do a summer intensive program at the famed Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. It would be my first time travelling alone and I would be gone for over two months, visiting Germany and France first and then settling in for my studies. I had no travel buddy. I knew nobody there. The freedom going into it felt amazing. When I got to London, I checked into my disgusting dorm at Ifor Evans Hall in Camden Town. Nineteen year old Robyn would not be thwarted by crappy accommodations. As I was decorating my room with pictures and memories from home, I was told to come to the on campus Club House that evening to meet my fellow students in preparation for classes the next day. As requested, I showed up at the Clubhouse that evening. I have never been able to drink alcohol. I cough and gag and feel sick the second it crosses my lips. Many of the worlds best wines and champagnes have been wasted on me. That night, I was determined to fit in with my fellow Americans and try to drink. At the Clubhouse, I approached the cute bartender and asked if he could mix me up a drink where I could not taste the alcohol. He took care of my request and then started chatting to me in his adorable accent about New York and the program I would be attending. Three drinks later I could barely stand(one of 3 times in my life I would consider myself "drunk") and the cute bartender spent most of the night tending to me. Turns out he was a molecular biology major at University College London working the Clubhouse for the summer in exchange for free housing at the crappy dorms. We talked until dawn, making it very hard to survive my first day at RADA. Six weeks later, this same guy would follow me home on a plane to New York. Six years later, I married him. Most people go to London and come home with a souvenir Big Ben, Paddington Bear, or "Mind the Gap" shirt. I came home with a purebred English future husband.
I could go on all day about our many years of personal explorations here or the top billed attractions the guide books tell you not to miss, but what I most want to share are my own favorite things to do in England, some of which you may have never heard of.
West Country Carnival
Remember, remember the 5th of the November....and the weeks surrounding it. Surrounding Guy Fawkes Day the West Country comes alive with a carnival of tractor pulled floats, called carts, that wind their way through the countryside. Local guilds spend thousands of hours and dollars to build these themed, live action, mechanically complex carts that are entirely torn apart at the end as each guild enters a new cart every year. The quality of these floats gives those at Mardi Gras a real run for their money. This tradition dates back around 1605, the time of the gunpowder plot. The oldest and largest circuit is the Somerset County Guy Fawkes Carnival Association Circuit which starts at Bridgewater, with many of the carts will appear in all of the carnivals. Prizes are awarded in several categories for the best carts in each carnival. Each weekend night the carnival comes to a different village. The skies above these small farm towns glow brighter as parade, often in excess of three hours, edges near. Luckily, it comes to the village my mother in law lives and its just a short walk from her cottage to the center of the action. This is my favorite thing in England. If you happen to be there in the fall, try to catch this jubilant tradition. You can see a video of my best friend Travis, James and I at the carnival here:
Hampton Court Palace
A quick day trip from London accessible by car, train or boat is Hampton Court Palace, the former residence of Henry VIII and other royals. It is one of the largest and grandest palaces in Europe, but what I really love about it is the grounds. You will find the worlds first tennis court, a vineyard, many hidden gardens and a huge hedge maze. It is especially nice because it doesn't get the throngs of tourists that Windsor and Kensington get, so sometimes on week days you can feel like you have the place to yourself.
If you have a chance, catch a show in the West End. If it is summer and A Midsummer Nights Dream is playing at the Open Air Theater in Regents Park, go see that instead. If you want to see a classic play, catch The Mousetrap. One rule, if you are from New York and visit London and see something you could have seen in New York (i.e Lion King or Chicago), you have committed sacrilege. There is plenty of great venues and companies that are not a part of the West End. Seeing a show at The Globe is quite the experience. And if you are looking for something more immersive, the groundbreaking company Punchdrunk is based out of London and always has something new and exciting. Also, check the schedule for Secret Cinema, an immersive movie going experience which will spoil all future visits to the movies.
The Jurassic Coast
You know when you are at a Natural History Museum and see giant fossils from long extinct sea creatures such as icthyasaurs and ammonites? Check where the fossil was unearthed. You will find they often come from the Jurassic Coast, the southern coastline, battered by the tides of the English Channel. In the county of Dorset, there are many seaside towns that are right out of Jane Austen novels. Breezy promenades, thatched cottages, tiny fish shacks and pebble beaches. Lyme Regis is a very popular summer resort and great for a stroll any time of year. On a clear day you can see France, and on pretty much any day you can see the cliffs behind the nearby beaches rising from what waves. During low tide you can walk out on these beaches and scavenge for fossils. Of course you can't climb the cliffs or smack at them with axes, but the ever eroding cliffs and ebbing tides mean daily discoveries can be found at the base. A favorite past time of mine is taking out a hammer and some chisels and hunting for fossils. I have never come up totally empty handed and even once found an ammonite encrusted in pyrite.
Visit A University Town
Both Oxford and Cambridge have a lot to offer and are easy day trips from London. The energy, history and traditions of both towns make for worthwhile explorations. If you love Harry Potter or Alice in Wonderland, Oxford is a great place for you. If you like trying local traditions, try punting on the Cam in Cambridge.
The Harry Potter Experience
Speaking of Mr. Potter, the full Harry Potter Experience is now open at Leavesden Studios. The Warner Brothers Studio Tour is well worth the time for kids old and young. Even if you have seen local Harry Potter exhibits, visited Oxford and went to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, this is a truly well put together and interactive attraction. You get to see many of the actual sets and props, ride a broom stick, interact with death eaters and take all the cheesy photos you want. Loved it!
Warwick and Stratford
It is easy to work in a visit to the magnificent and medieval Warwick Castle en route to Stratford-Upon-Avon. Once in Stratford, take in all the usual Shakespeare haunts, but don't forget to check the calender at the local and world famous Royal Shakespeare Company to see what is playing while you were there. I saw an enchanting production of The Secret Garden there that totally brought me to tears.
Possibly my favorite town in England. Glastonbury is the heart of King Arthur Country or Avalon and very near to where my husband grew up. These days it is known for its massive music festival and its population of eclectic mystics and hippies. In Glastonbury, most of the stores sell capes, runes, faeries and special interest books making it very different than your average English modern day clone town. Off the main street, there are many kooky decorated alcoves and alleys leading to more quirky shops. Possibly the main attraction is the Tor. This giant hill has been steeped in much legend as being the supposed grave site of King Arthur based on alleged finds during the 1800's. On top of the hill, small ruins of St. Michael's Church can be found, if you are up for a steep, windy climb. Once at the top, you have unparalleled of the Somerset levels and a whole lot of sheep.
One of my favorite finds in Glastonbury is the White Spring Water Temple found at the start of the road that leads to the Tor. If you are in town and ever wanted to feel like you are in a Legend of Zelda game, make a quick stop inside. Take off your shoes, and whatever other clothing you prefer.
Cross Into Wales
From cities such as Bristol, Bath or Bridgewater, Wales is a hop, skip and a jump away. Spend a day in a whole different country or spend a night in one of their many Manor Houses. The language will make your jaw drop and the scenery will make you feel like a hobbit returning to their cozy hole. Check out Tintern Abbey, immortalized in a Wordsworth poem and Chepstow Castle, the oldest in Great Britain, built in 1066. Or from the north of England, you can enter near Snowdonia, a great place for skiing in the winter.
The Forest of Dean and Sherwood Forest
England has a lot of woods and the English love their country strolls. Dogs walk their owners, equestrians practice their gallops, and families practice orienteering. Both the Forest of Dean and Sherwood Forest offer unique attractions and things to stumble upon or the whole family. The Forest of Dean is actually one of the top vacation destination for British residents, but isn't heavily visited by foreign tourists.
The Museums of London
This one is obvious and mainstream, but worth a mention. With so many world class museums it is hard to go wrong. You have the Tate Modern, National Gallery and literally dozens to choose from. My favorites include the British Museum, the Natural History Museum (to see the giant versions of the tiny fossils I find on the coast), and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Especially the latter where there are always brilliantly curated exhibits going on. Most recently a Hollywood Costume exhibit that blew my mind. You can also try on costumes!
Have a Spot of Tea
You can't go to England and not have High Tea. This afternoon tradition is a decadent indulgence in our modern times, and there are so many great places to experience it. Probably the most famous is the Ritz, which is the first one I ever went to. One of my favorite pastimes of my trips to England and also the site of the first formal "date" James and I went on together. Other great High Tea's include The Mad Hatters Tea at Sanderson complete with "Eat Me's" and "Drink Me's", or the Prêt-à-Portea at Berkeley featuring fashion inspired sweets such as Burberry Trench vanilla cookies. The High Tea at Grosvenor House will transport you to an episode of Downton Abbey, and if you take tea at the Lanesborough near Buckingham Palace, you will actually be having tea next door to the Queen. The Savoy, Athenaeum, Claridge's and Brown's also offer legendary high tea experiences. If you find yourself in the north of the country, Betty's in Harrogate is out of this world.
Or Have a Lot of Junk Food
England may not be known for their delectable cuisine, but gosh do they have some great snacks. Sticky toffee pudding anyone? Or better yet, Banoffee Pudding (the former with added bananas). Of course you will find great biscuts to go with your tea. McVities Milk Chocolate Digestives or Hob Nobs are my favorites. They have bacon flavored potato chips which are both sinful and worth it. Check of the food halls at Harrod's to find my favorite chocolate in the world, Prestat Earl Grey Chocolate wafers. If you want to grab real quick non junk food, try Nando's peri-peri chicken. A favorite of my husband and many Londoners.
Built in the late 12th century for and by the Knights Templar, Temple Church is unique for its round shape and effigy tombs. Great for peace and quiet, an escape from the crowds at other attractions or Davinci Code fans. It is located between Fleet Street and the River Thames and is worth a drop in.
Explore Antiques Markets
No matter what town you are visiting in England, its a sure thing one day a week they have a local antique market. These are especially great if you collect British or French antiques such as Quimper, Motto Ware, Toby Jars and other glasswares. They are a teeny fraction of the price that you find them for here in the states so its a good chance to stock up and save if you are into that kind of thing. My mother used to send me with empty suitcases to procure items for her.
Hunt Hidden Noses
The London Noses or Seven Noses of Soho are an artistic installation found on buildings in central London. They are plaster of paris reproductions of the artist, Rick Buckley's nose which protrude from walls in very strange ways. About 35 were attached to buildings such as the National Gallery and Tate Britain but now only about 10 survive. The prank was not publicized and so urban myths grew up to explain the noses. The nose inside the Admiralty Arch was said to have been created to mock Napoleon and that the nose would be tweaked by cavalry troopers from nearby Horseguards Parade when they passed through the arch. A cab driver told us great fortune and luck would come to us if we found seven of them. Can you?
Sleep in a Castle
England has a huge assortment or castle hotels and manor houses that you could spend a night or a month in. Many of them are surprisingly affordable while others require a royal budget. Great if you like to stroll grounds, sleep in places of historic significance, hunt ghosts or try falconry! My favorite to date is Thornbury Castle in Bristol. Delictable food, the perfect gardens of get lost in, and Oh My Goodness.....the rooms. We had the pleasure of spending Election Night of 2012 in the Tower Suite to celebrate my husbands birthday. This suite, which is indeed a stone tower, boasts 24-carat gilding, the largest four-poster bed in the UK, a giant clawfoot tub, sumptuous Tudor furnishings, and a breathtaking view across Gloucestershire. A magic button made the gigantic television rise from the foot of the bed. We stayed up all night, sprawling across the bed with our friends, watching the results come in.
Hotel Hop in London
London has an every changing hotel scene and offers something for every personality. If you are a frequent visitor, try different hotels, especially the boutique hotels that offer great extra amenities that the larger hotels often charge for. My favorite hotels in London include The Milestone, The Lanesborough, and The Savoy.
Hill figures are large carvings into the hillsides that are best viewed from above or from a distance. The earliest of them date back to pre-history and probably the most famous are the Nazca Lines of Peru. England is especially covered in lime stone carvings. Mostly in the south of the country, these mysterious carvings have unknown origins but all at least several centuries old. There are 16 white horses carved into the hills across the country. Two can be seen from the train between London and the west. There are several of men including the Long Man of Wilmington and Cerne Abbas Giant. The Giant is also known as "The Rude Giant" because he is unabashedly nude and boasting a large erection. Some claim it was the outline of a real giant. Couples used to come here to pray for fertility as well. You'll never forget how much you laugh upon a visit here. Google it.
Find Land's End
Cornwall is a wonderful county to explore and not just for the delicious pasties. Here you will find towns such as St. Ives and Penzance (give or take the pirates). A walk out to St. Michael's mount at low tide is magic. At the very end of Cornwall, land ends and the Atlantic begins its several thousand mile stretch. They make a big deal out of this. It is actually called Lands End and there is a nice park and lots of signs. Wave to your friends back home.
What are your favorite things to do in England? I would love to know......