England First

May 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Though this trip is for an extended stay in Paris, our journey really begins in England because of how our Virgin Atlantic flight and the dates we booked our apartment. We had four extra nights which we divided between friends near Oxford and at The Rectory Hotel in Wiltshire.

Before we left home we checked and re-checked the weather forecast for our destinations only to see rain, rain, and occasional rain. To our pleasant surprise our days in England turned out to be sunny and mild which I took as an omen of good things to come. The omen did not extend, however, to driving on the left side of the road in a car with a manual transmission!

We arrived at Heathrow and went to pick up our rental car but it had space for only one suitcase (in the back seat, not the trunk…) we had three suitcases. We were offered a larger car with an automatic transmission (as if it was a gift to us even though it was going to cost $60.00 more a day). We eventually drove out of the lot without having to spend more money, and me behind the wheel. Over the next four days the combination of roundabouts, left hand drive, narrow roads, sent us over the edge….a test to the best of relationships! At one point after three attempts at actually getting around a roundabout Tom was stamping both feet and wailing “NO! NO! NO!”. I thought he was going to cry. Fortunately the drivers we shared the road with were all very courteous …. perhaps they were keeping their distance if they actually could see what was playing out inside our little car!

We made it to Baldon House, the home of our friends, Suzy and David.

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Suzy was there to greet us along with a peacock standing at their back door peeking through the glass pane into the house!

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Turns out the peacock just appeared one day.

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There had been some at the Nature Conservancy next to our friend’s property, but one day a decision was made not to have them anymore. After that one or two popped up at the surrounding farms! He walked right up to me, just short of touching me with his beak and just stared, then sauntered off with his glorious tail feathers dragging after him.

Their home is a grade II category for an historic property. We had seen a picture but actually standing in front of it was the “worth a thousand words” moment….

After a bowl of soup, a cup,of hot tea, and a nap, we were refreshed and David took us on a wonderful tour of Oxford where he graduated from Queen’s College and ultimately founded Oxford Analytica. We went to see his offices in the center of Oxford. On the corner is The Bear Pub established in 1300!

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We saw Oxford through his eyes, got into places we could not have gone on our own and learned much about the history.

David & Cecile on the 50 cent tour

He showed us Christ Church, the dining hall featured in the Harry Potter films, and Queen’s College where he was a student when he attended Oxford….

David's College at Oxford

Also Queens College library and chapel where we just missed Evensong.

Later we all went to dinner at the Seven Stars Pub up the street from Baldon House. The next day began with fresh farm eggs and toast grilled on the Aga. What an invention! It is hugely complicated and operates nothing like what you and I know a stove to be. It is always on. It keeps the kitchen warm. There are several doors on the front of it, which I have always wondered about. You don’t set an oven temperature, you merely move your food from one oven to the next because each one is a different temperature….you have to be in the kitchen, on alert, whenever you’re cooking, you can’t leave the kitchen! Suzy tells us that it turns out incredibly delicious stews cooked slowly for hours. Part of their house dates back to the 1600s. Originally the kitchen was very different. The Aga was in one room. Another room, the scullery, was where the washing up was done, and there was a huge walk-in safe with a thick door that only the head housekeeper had the key to. All the silver, crystal, china were kept there and inventoried every day. The butler held the keys to the wine room. Nothing must go missing!

We visited Blenheim Palace, the home of Winston Churchill.

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imageAmazing to be standing in a place with such history and be reminded of the relationship between our two countries. The history is too much to go into so I leave it to you to explore. “Downstairs” at Blenheim there are a huge number of bells the staff had to respond to. There were front stairs and back stairs. Servants had to get food to the dining room in minutes while still warm…..it looks impossible given the flights of narrow stairs they had to climb with heavy silver serving trays. On each floor, at the top of the stairs, there was a large wooden box that held the wood, kindling and paper used to set the fireplaces in each room so one didn’t have to go all the way downstairs to set or feed a fire. Blenheim Palace is enormous – the staff and groundskeepers do a fine job keeping the place in tip top shape. We had lunch in the cafe topped off by the best scone we’ve ever tasted. There are acres of gardens but the day was cool and damp so we kept to the palace and walked a bit

Our second night Tom and I had dinner on our own at The Mole Inn and on our last day we borrowed Wellies and got a tour of the farm….pigs, chicken, and sheep – a sheep shearing party was to take place on the weekend.

Oxford gray & Tan pigs

image imageThere is a dove cote – there used to be thousands in England but now there are only three hundred or so.

Dove coat at Baldon house

We could not get over the fence to get inside. There are lots of “pigeon holes” where each bird would nest/sleep….. Hence the term! It is where pigeons and doves were kept. The servants ate the pigeons, the gentry ate the doves! David had urged us to visit the bluebells in their woods by a small lake. We had to find the entrance and climb over a fence but we made it, as you can see.

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Then we were off to Wiltshire. Suzy mapped out the scenic route for us. All along the way were breathtaking views of the rapeseed in bloom – a shockingly vibrant shade of citrine yellow. Rapeseed

We drove a very old and narrow one lane road (narrow meaning the width of our car!) lined with old stone walls and houses with roof tops covered with lichen. We had a delicious lunch at The Lamb in Burford. In Lechlade we were to visit a church to see the stained glass windows but it was closed, so we walked the cemetery with markers so old the words not legible. Dinner at The Potting Shed across the street from our hotel. The next day a visit to the Abbey gardens in Malmesbury. The tulips were blooming in profusion and in every color you can conjure up. image image

Off to Tetbury for lunch. We chose the cafe at The Ormond Hotel and it was spot on. Lovely and very good food. Unfortunately special arrangements must be made to see Highgrove, home of Prince Charles and Camilla, so we missed it.

Bucolic countryside with cream sauce is how I describe it! Surprisingly cream sauces regularly show up on menus. No calories viewing the countryside but calories galore at mealtime!

Time to bid farewell to England and fly to Paris. Off we go, the GPS voice (English female) was unruffled, but as we took each turn and appeared to be headed for a fox hunt instead of the M4 Tom came undone…..but she was right and we were on schedule and almost reached the rental car return when all of a sudden the directions we had did not match the location we were in…..we were certainly not at the airport. We asked “her” to go to Hertz car Rental but Miss All England led us to a very dicey area and announced we had arrived at our destination….Tom sorted it out but not for a good while. I was so thankful to finally get out of that car and head to the airline terminal.

We hadn’t originally planned a one-off to England but that’s how things worked out. A short and pleasant adventure.

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