My husband Jim and I have different but compatible reasons for going to Britain: history (me, and to some extent him) and gardens (mostly him; he analyzes gardens, I just enjoy them). Our next stop on the tour was Kent (with some side excursions into East Sussex), which has plenty of both. I've been reading novels set in Britain for years now (okay, Regency romances; so I like trash novels! But not only romances...), and I wanted to see some of the places I've read about: Kent turns up a lot in these novels because that's where Dover is, and in the 19th century if you wanted to go to France, you pretty much had to go through Dover. For that matter, unless you fly, you still do, since the Chunnel comes out near Dover. We noticed signs in German and French, in the Dover area, reminding drivers to stay to the left!
On the way down into Kent we stopped at Leeds Castle, recommended to me by a British friend as "the most beautiful castle in Europe." This may be a slight overstatement, but it's certainly stunning; it was originally fully moated, in fact it's in the middle of a lake. They've added a causeway for the tourists (foot traffic only), but the original barbican is still there, with portcullis; it also contained a mill, and gave the castle the ability to flood the valley if necessary to repel invaders. Today of course, the moat is all just serene water; the last owner before the non-profit foundation that currently runs it was very fond of birds, so it has a "duckery", and a large collection of ducks and swans (including black). Some of the black swans had cygnets, but I couldn't get a decent photo of them. The castle itself dates to 1166 and was one of the initial fortifications built by William the Conqueror's men; in 1278 it "passed into royal hands" and became part of the Queen's dower rights; it was home to six medieval queens. Unlike the properties run by the National Trust, Leeds allows photography as long as you don't use flash (and not in the chapel); so I have some photos. Oh, yes: in classic English fashion, "Leeds Castle" is nowhere near Leeds. Don't ask me.
Some of my (four!) readers have asked about photos. Yes, I have photos, I shot 16 rolls; I can organize and post the photos, or I can write these posts; over the next few weeks I'll be doing both. I will probably post most of the photos on my personal web site rather than Blogger because there are so many of them.
After Leeds Castle we ran on down to Densole, a village outside of Folkestone, where we stayed for 2 nights to visit the Canterbury area. We began the first morning at Richborough, a Roman ruin (Rutupiae) near the Isle of Thanet (which isn't an island any more, but it was when the Romans got here). This entire area, now several miles inland, was coast when the Romans arrived in 43 AD, and for several centuries after that; after the 3rd century AD it was called the "Saxon shore" and was fortified against that wave of invasions from the continent. This area of England, being the closest point to the continent, has always been the first target of anybody who thinks they might like to invade. Visiting a Roman ruin on a Wednesday morning is delightful, with any luck you'll be the only people in the place, and you can wander around and imagine things. We were fortunate at Richborough that the weather was clear and windy, although the ground (as everywhere we went) was very soggy. The view from the ruin unfortunately included the cooling towers of the local nuclear power plant, sigh.
After exploring the ruin, we decided to skip the Roman amphitheater and go straight to Canterbury, driving through Sandwich on the way because it was supposed to have a beautiful medieval downtown. It did have, but I didn't get any photos because we didn't stop. Nobody with any sense actually tries to drive into a city like Canterbury; you stay somewhere reasonably close, drive as far as the ring road, and pick up the park-and-ride bus, which dumps you in front of the Boot's. Much simpler; as far as we could tell, most of the cities with a medieval center have this (not sure about London, but of course it has the Underground and the trains).
On this trip we saw three major cathedrals, Canterbury, Chester, and York Minster, and it's amazing how different they are. I'll get to the others later, but my single word for Canterbury Cathedral is: overwhelming. It's just huge. My first sight of it was down a narrow medieval street, lined to the sidewalk with 4-5 story buildings and cobbled; at the end of this dark little street, the cathedral gate kind of explodes at you, at least half again as high as any of the buildings, and reaching for the sky with its spires and carvings. Also, instead of the dark flint that is the common building material, it's made of a golden stone similar to that you find used for building in the Cotswolds, so it appears much lighter. Even when you get inside the cathedral close, the building itself goes on and on.
You can't be unaware of history in this place: founded around 600 AD by St. Augustine; the site of the murder of Archbishop Thomas à Becket in 1190, whose shrine was a destination for pilgrims for centuries (as in the Canterbury Tales); converted from a Catholic monastery to a cathedral in the new church by Henry VIII. Henry, by the way, destroyed the elaborate shrine to Becket when he dissolved the monastery and converted the abbey church into a cathedral for his new church: he didn't want to encourage people to follow Becket's example of disagreeing with kings named Henry! The cathedral now has a modern memorial in the side chapel where Becket was actually murdered, which is very moving.
They say Americans are impressed by old things just because they're old, and maybe we are; but it's just awesome to walk around in this place and think of the generations who have worshiped there, and the history that has happened. I don't personally belong to an organized church, but I've studied the middle ages all my life, and you have to respect the role the church played in people's lives, and to a certain extent still does. I'm told that Church of England attendance is down, but I've never gone into a parish church (much less a cathedral) that wasn't immaculately maintained. And Canterbury Cathedral is still a working church; they stop tourists a couple of times a day while someone leads a prayer over the PA system. My husband and I are music lovers and we have some of the recordings of Alfred Deller, the great counter-tenor from the 1950's and 60's; we were charmed to find, in a little corner of the cathedral, a plaque in Deller's memory; he sang in the Canterbury Cathedral choir and was "discovered" there.
Our other destination in Canterbury was the Abbey of St. Augustine; the original abbey founded by St. Augustine is, of course, Canterbury Cathedral, this was a second foundation outside the city walls, originally dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul, which was part of his campaign to convert the heathens of the Island. We were somewhat delayed in getting there by a roaring downpour - we ducked under a shop awning to wait it out, which took about 15 minutes. But by the time we were out touring the abbey ruins, the sun was out and it was very hot. This was pretty much the weather pattern for our entire trip. After the abbey we had dinner in a pub, and went back to the B&B.
The next day we spent touring the Cinque Ports area - we went to Dover to see the White Cliffs. Yes, they really are white; yes, they really are made of chalk, you can pick up a rock and scribble on your hand. They're actually quite startling, being a good 200-300 feet high; they must be visible for miles from the sea. There was a dim blur on the horizon which Jim claimed was France but I'm not sure I believe it; still the English Channel is only 20 miles wide there. Didn't go into Dover, but got a good look at the harbor from the cliffs, a serious working port with container cranes. We went on to have lunch in Rye, a town that has appeared in one of my favorite novels (Georgette Heyer's The Unknown Ajax). I was charmed to find that Ms. Heyer didn't invent the Mermaid Inn, which is still there on a steep cobbled street (God help the carriage horses that had to get to that!). The parish church in Rye is 904 years old, and not much changed over the centuries, it's still very Norman in style. I got an outside look at the Ypres Tower, (also mentioned by Ms. Heyer), but we didn't have time to tour it, as we had to move on to Great Dixter and then our next B&B.
Great Dixter was my husband's choice: this was the family home and garden of Christopher Lloyd, a world-renowned gardener and garden writer; we have all his books (I think we bought the last one in the bookshop there). Jim of course was mainly interested in the gardens, which he described as "fearless" (he's talking about Lloyd's mixtures of color and texture in his plantings). I was interested in the house, which is a very well preserved 15th century hall with a thatched roof, still in use by the Lloyd family, I think, although Mr. Lloyd himself died in January 2006. I found the house tour very interesting and the gardens delightful, although I don't have the same point of view Jim has. It was overcast and dark when we began the tour; Jim said attendance was light, but I thought there were quite a few people, considering the weather. By the time we finished (kicked out at closing) it was raining, so we moved along to our next B&B, a small pub located in Lamberhurst, a village near Royal Tunbridge Wells.