All entries for Thursday 16 December 2004

December 16, 2004

Blenheim Palace

Last Wednesday, the 8th, we took a day trip down to Woodstock and visited Blenheim Palace. (This wasn't as easily done as we expected. Our plan, actually, was to save a little bit on fares by taking the regional commuter buses down. We wound our way from Leamington through the town of Warwick, past the famous castle, and through various small villages and suburban developments, until we got to Stratford — where we found out the connecting bus wasn't coming that day until mid-afternoon. We had to give up and take the train — which took us all the way back thru Warwick and Leamington on the way down to Oxford.)

Anyway, by mid-afternoon we finally arrived at the Blenheim Palace gates, and walked up the road to the palace itself. It was a cold, gray day, but we were still awed by the extravagant beauty of the building and its far-flung grounds.

After hiking the paths through the woods and gardens on both sides of the building, we walked in through the grand entrance and took a tour of the building itself. We expected grandeur, but were impressed nonetheless. Inside the front portico is a great hall, three stories high, with balconies and high windows letting in — well, not much light, on a day like today, so some spotlights were on, casting pools of cold white light here and there across the hall. We were shown a succession of staterooms, and a succession of portraits of dukes of Marlborough. There was a grand dining room decked out for a festive holiday meal, which is actually served on Christmas day to the duke and duchess and their extended family. The library room, at the end of the tour, was also splendid and vast. Kerry recognized it, and a few other interior sites, from Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet.

We also saw the small bedroom where Winston Churchill, son of the 8th duke's second son Randolph, was born in 1874. Apparently it's been arranged as it was then, with a little bed and a table (and a typed note from Randolph Churchill, thanking the doctor for his help that day). Nearby was an exhibit of Churchill memorabilia, but our time had already grown short. We stepped back outside into the darkness, and actually walked down the road to the entry gate, only to find that it had already been closed and locked. We had to hike a very long distance to get out through another gate on another side of the property (then all the way back to our bus stop outside the original gate). It's almost as if the palace was designed for visitors with cars.

Still, it was every bit as magnificent as we had hoped. It's now closed to visitors until the spring, so we're glad we managed a holiday-season visit while we could.

Notting Hill and Kew Gardens

I'm writing this entry a bit belatedly, but still hope that it's interesting. Possibly my favorite single thing we've done so far. Norwood had to go into London for a conference about three weeks ago. After the conference he was planning to spend the next whole day at the Public Records Office, the equivalent of the National Archives in the U.S. Since Kew is right down the street from the archives (both are out in suburban London) I knew this would be my one chance to go see the gardens. A friend of ours has been housesitting in a really nice house in Notting Hill and invited us to stay there for the two nights that we would be in town. It was fun to explore a new neighborhood in London, Notting Hill has become pretty posh especially since the movie came out a few years ago. The first night we found a cheap little Carribean food place and had jerk chicken and salted cod and ackee with rice and fried dumplings—it was really delicious. The next day Norwood went to his conference and I did a little Christmas shopping and went back to the house to do some work I had brought with me. But before I did I made a quick detour around the corner from the house and went to a bookstore called Books for Cooks, which was nothing but cookbooks and a small cafe. Pretty much every conceivable topic in cookery was covered there but surprisingly most of the books there you could find at any really good Waterstones or Borders in the UK and the US. I was hoping to find a used section that I had heard about that might have some more unusual stuff but never saw anything. Maybe I missed it somehow. As I was leaving I noticed another bookshop across the street the Travel Bookshop which is the one from Notting Hill if you've seen the movie. Our friend, the housesitter, says that American tourists are always coming up to her on the street and asking "Where's the bookshop?" which I find strange since it is a terrible movie and doesn't seem worth bothering with. Also nearby, actually just one street over, is Portobello Road. I have to confess that I'm constantly thinking of references to books, movies, and sometimes nursery rhymes based in England, and being on Portobello Road made me think of the scene and the song from Bedknobs and Broomsticks (movie). Because it was the middle of the week I didn't see much out—there were some stalls with jewelry, cheap clothes, baked goods and produce, etc. but it was still fun to look for awhile. Later, after I had gotten some work done, I went over the the V & A museum where a friend of ours works, because she let me in to see one of the the special exhibits for free. It is called Encounters and is about the early interaction between Europeans and the Far East, with a primary focus on Japan, China, and India. There were some many of the pieces of clothing, furniture, and exotic diplomatic gifts, reflected an early mixing of the cultures and traditions of East and West in ways I hadn't seen before and many of the pieces were really beautiful. You can see some of the pieces here.

The next day Norwood and I went down to Kew. He headed to the archives and I went to the gardens. It was one of the few times I've paid to see something here, since we are on a tight budget, but it was well worth the fee. If you come here and you like gardens and gardening you'll love it of course, but even if you are not normally that interested in that sort of thing I think most people find it to be really interesting and a very nice day out. Although it was chilly and not as much is in bloom right now, there is always something to see at every time of the year. When I went at the beginning of December there was still gorgeous fall color everywhere and really beautiful trees full of berries of all shades.

The Palm House was also wonderful bec. it was the first time I had felt warm and humid since leaving Austin—I was a little reluctant to leave for that reason but the variety of palms are amazing, they have almost every known variety there.

Another highlight was the beautiful Japanese Garden with large shaped cedars a pagoda tower and small rock garden. Later along the path I came to a large redwood grove that mixed coastal and mountainous varieties together. It's funny how smell can evoke a place so strongly and being amongst the redwoods reminded me so much of being in California, esp. since no one was around and it was very quiet with just the sounds of bits of redwood branches (needles?) dropping to the ground was so like going camping in the Sierras. There were so many great things to see there, I just can't describe them all but here are a couple of others briefly: The Princess of Wales Conservatory, the newest of the three large conservatories, it has mutiple rooms with several different microclimates housing the most beautiful plants. If the redwood grove reminded me of CA then the Cactus and Succulents in one of these rooms reminded me so much of TX, not simply the plants, but something about the fresh, sandy,dry smell immediately made me think of being back there.

The Orchid room and the Cloud Forest Room were also not to be missed. Just outside of the Princess of Wales was also an amazing rock garden. Not like the Japanese style ones where there are lines raked over in swirls in the sand but terraces that are sort of built out of rocks and had plants from Spain, the Himalayas, Japan and the U.S. cultivated on them and running streams cutting through different sections. Unfortunately my camera batteries started to wear down and I got one average-looking shot of it which I'll try to post.
Unfortunately, completely missed the fact that there was a bonsai exhibit there, even though I was wondering how a botanic garden could not have one—sorry Dad!

Norwood and I arranged to meet at 4 pm for tea at the Original Maids of Honour across the street from Kew, my nomination for best tea shop in England! Although I've only tried three. It was great, really cozy with a small fire in the fireplace, boughs of fir and holly draped everywhere for Christmas (I now think of everything to do with Christmas in England as "Dickensian") and wonderful scones, clotted cream, jam and a pastry each. Norwood picked out a yummy eclair and I had the Maid of Honour, a mini-tart filled with custard and served warm. It felt like the perfect end to a fun day out!

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