England charmed me from day one. I was a lucky visitor, too — the weather was mild and even warm at times. There was rain of course, and wind, but the holiday atmosphere, food, and my gracious hosts made that as pleasant as anything.
Christmas in Kent:
The first leg of my trip was spent in Kent, the southeastern tip of England (you’ve seen a billion pictures of the Cliffs of Dover). Kent’s location has naturally made it a living museum and therefore full of great old houses, cathedrals, castles and other important historical sites. William the Conqueror landed and built his first castles here, for example, and the county’s close proximity to London (as well as its “gateway to Europe” type position) have kept it important through all ages.
Kent’s countryside is still hopelessly romantic. The winter had been so mild that England’s characteristic green landscapes still look their very best, and small cottages and rows of townhouses, mansions and quaint farms occupy picturesque knolls, valleys, and quiet village streets at every turn.
My hosts live in Kemsing, but they keep some sheep and pigs on and near the Oak Hall estate grounds which sit on a bluff overlooking their village. The manor now houses a Christian retreat ministry. You will find that most great houses like Oak Hall have undergone similar evolutions in ownership and use — whether they now belong to private organizations and individuals or to the UK’s National Trust, for example.
On such place is Knole House (above), which we visited on one very particularly rainy day. It once belonged to the Sackville family and sits on 1,000 acres, famous for its woods and deer hunting. Distinguished guests of the family over the years have included Henry VIII (he apparently adored the hunting grounds) and, more recently, the author Virginia Wolff.
We also spent and afternoon in historic Rochester, the site of one of the Normans’ first castles and its Norman-built twin, the Rochester Cathedral. It was also the home of Charles Dickens for several years. Some of the businesses on the city’s high street are cleverly named after his iconic characters and stories.
New Years in the North
One of our first excursions after heading north for New Year’s was taking a hiking trip (almost) to the Snowden summit in Snowdonia National Park in North Wales. Such views I’ve only dreamed of setting up camp in. The wind was rather insatiable, but the fog that rolled in with it was something majestic. I loved the place.
Liverpool was a delight (to my surprise, I must admit), but apparently the 2008 European Capitol of Culture made good use of the many extra visitors and pounds. We did a whirlwind tour (quite literally, the wind never really subsided) of the main sights – including the docks, the Cavern, the mesmerizing Liverpool Cathedral and also a quick stop by our friend’s workplace, a BBC radio station – winding up at the Philharmonic Dining Rooms for a proper pub and toilet (it’s a craze) experience.
We were based in Chester during the week, once the Romans’ northernmost capitol in Great Britain, and took another blistery walk on the old city wall, taking in the tourists-loved Tudor-esque high street, cathedral, and another of William’s castles. We spent the afternoon of New Years’ day taking in my first proper tea at a properly posh hotel, clotted cream and all.
Many, many things to see next time, but here are a few highlights:
Hever Castle – The childhood home of Anne Boleyn in Kent; they filmed parts of “The Other Boleyn Girl” here;
Canterbury – the famous cathedral city on a Middle Ages pilgrimage route;
Crosby Beach – Three-mile beach stretching from Liverpool docks with permanent art installation of iron men by Antony Gormley;
London – Aside from our lovely day trip including Borough Market and Chinatown’s best Dim Sum, most of my experience with London has been spent at Heathrow (the airport) or on the M25 (or the London Orbital Motorway encircling the great metropolis expanse that is now the city). The city is vast and rapidly changing, and it deserves at least a week or two for a proper visit.