Thursday, 26 January 2017

January in England – It Snows

This was the house we lived in in England for two years – Quarter Moon Cottage. I know I've shared it before, but never like this, lightly covered in snow.  

Why was it called Quarter Moon Cottage we never figured out, but on occasion we would receive mail for the owners of the house and the address listed would simple say “Quarter Moon Cottage.”  Many of the houses in our little village of Worthington had names posted on a plaque out front, and more than once I had a delivery person knock on the door and ask, “Can you point me towards Oliver’s Cottage?” 

“Do you have the house number or name of the road?” I would ask.

“No,” was the reply.  “Just says Oliver’s Cottage.”

Such in life in England.

The photo of our house also shows you just how very close to the road our house sat.  Actually, the house couldn’t get any closer to the road.  The mirrors on trucks coming from behind our house quite literally passed a foot or two from the stucco side.  To get past our house you had no choice but to walk on the road.  But again, as with houses having names, houses sitting right on the road are quite common in England.  Was I nervous about someone running into the house?  Absolutely.  But it never happened during our time there, and hopefully never will. 

Believe it or not, despite our house and the back garden (as it is called in the UK) sitting right on the road, the backyard was quite private thanks to a fence and the tall hedge.  

On the other side of that hedge you see in the photo above is a four or five foot drop directly down to the road.  That was a busy road, but because of that thick green hedge, we could be in our backyard and hardly tell when a car or truck was going by.

I can count on one hand how many times we woke to snow in the morning during our two years in England, and I wouldn't have to use all of my fingers.  The snow never stayed for long, but for this one short day it transformed the view from the front windows of our house, turning the usually green yet dreary January English countryside to a beautiful soft white that was much appreciated during the long, dark months of winter. 

I miss that view.

So what does one do on a typical weekend during the winter while living in England?   

You head outside for a walk.  The British love to walk, in all types of weather.  You just need to dress appropriately.  Hat, mittens, winter jacket...

One particular Saturday or Sunday, I can’t remember which, we deciding a nice walk at one of our favorite parks was on the agenda, so we grabbed our winter gear and headed out the door to Beacon Hill.   

We did this same two-mile or so hike around the park several times will living in England and it never got old.   

We would pass through a forest with a play area with hand carved wooden playground equipment for the girls to play on...

these unique and artistic pieces all carved by a craftsman in the park.  

In fact as you continue on the hike, you pass by his woodcarving shack.  It was always fun to see the gigantic blocks of wood sitting outside the shack awaiting his skillful hands.  What would he make next?  Maybe some more sheep...

like this one that sits next to the trail as you head back up to the top of Beacon Hill.  

Beacon Hill was always a fun place to play...

and explore.   

And we always began and ended our hikes at the top...

on Beacon Hill itself... 

where you can see for miles upon miles in all directions.  

It was windy on this particular winter day...

but that didn’t stop the girls from having some fun scrambling around the rocks where you felt like you were at the top of the world.  

On another Sunday, we jumped in the car and headed for the quaint town of Ashbourne.  The twisting and turning narrow streets in the center of town are lined with adorable shops filled with all manner of treasures. 

Like this adorable shop with little baby bottoms strung across the window.  Are you kidding me?  So cute you want to walk in a buy a pair even if you don’t have a baby to give them to.  
It was another cold and blustery Sunday in January so we made our way to one of the many little coffee shops and cafes in Ashbourne for a warm drink. Ellie became a proper tea drinker while living in England, adding a bit of sugar and a splash of milk. 

And in England, tea always comes served in a proper tea pot.

Leah of course got the hot chocolate which should always be served in a cup smothered with whipping cream and pink and white marshmallows on the side.  That's how they do it here.  

After we had warmed up a bit, we wandered over to St. Oswald’s Church, it's 212-foot tall spire making quite a sight in this seemingly small town.  But when we moved to England, it didn’t take long for us to discover that magnificent churches can be found in any size town. 

Inside the church was equally as impressive...

the huge, beautiful stain glassed windows adding some color and light to the cold, stone interior.  A plaque inside the church says it was dedicated on April 24, 1241.  That’s over 700 years ago.  And as with every church we visited, this one also contained monuments inside to leading local families.  

Outside, the church is surrounded by a cemetery, the writing on some of the moss covered headstones now worn off by the elements as they slowly sink into the ground.   

Their presence always gives an eerie feel to the dark facades of these churches, but it’s fascinating to walk through the rows trying to make out the dates, some going back to the 1700s. 

And sometimes on a weekend day in January in England we just stayed at home in Quarter Moon Cottage.  The girls might squeeze through the wooden fence behind our house to play with the neighbor girl who lived next door.  Or we might watch a James Bond movie on TV as there always seemed to be a James Bond movie playing on TV.  Go figure!  

And often, I would spend the afternoon cooking a nice meal to go along with our English weekend at home, trying to make good use of the British grown ingredients we picked up at the local store.  One particular Saturday, or maybe it was a Sunday, I can't remember, it was Leek and Stilton tarts.   

So savory!  And so delicious!

And when you live in England for two years, that is how you while away the hours of the cold, dark and dreary weekends of January.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

A Trip to Windsor Castle

It was a beautiful sunny June morning, Sunday to be exact, about 8:30 am and we were sitting in Heathrow airport on the outskirts of London enjoying our morning coffee after our short but very early morning flight back to the UK from our trip to Germany and Switzerland (and Austria, Leichtenstein, and France too).  We could get in our car and make the two hour drive north to our cottage in the little village or Worthington where we had nothing in particular to do for the rest of the day…


We could make the short 15 or so minute drive to one of the most iconic places in all the UK…

A place that both Eric and I wanted to visit during our time in England…

And a place where perhaps we had the best chance of catching a glimpse of the Queen of England, Elizabeth II.

Windsor Castle.

The longest occupied palace in all of Europe, it’s occupants go all the way back to Henry I who was King of England in 1100 and right up to today as Queen Elizabeth II spends most of her weekends at Windsor Castle.  As luck would have it, she was there that Sunday.  Maybe this was our chance to see her in person. 

See that flag flying high over one of the towers of the great Castle?

That is called the Royal Standard and when it is the flag flying above this tower, it means the Queen is in attendance (when the monarch is not present at the Castle, the Union Jack, or British flag, is flown).  

 I’ll save you the drama of having to read this entire post wondering if we did in fact get to actually see Queen Elizabeth II that day.  Sadly, we did not, but not for want of trying.  When the part of the castle where the private royal apartments are located was pointed out to us, we parked ourselves for at this gate...

located directly across the courtyard. As the girls and I stood with our noses stuck through the wrought iron gate scanning the windows trying to catch even a glimpse of what we would surely never be able to tell from this distance was the Queen or not passing by (or maybe she would stop and open the window, giving a wave to the crowd gathered around us - I am not ashamed to admit that I actually stood there wishing, hoping, and pleading with the powers that be for that to happen), we also watched as her guard marched into the courtyard.  

The four guards on the left marched in unison up to the single guard by the shack and with great pomp and circumstance, one of the four replaced the single guard, who then joined the rest as they continued to march around the courtyard.  The girls and I stood at the gate watching as they marched closer, and closer, and closer, our hearts fluttering a little more with each rhythmic step because, while these are quite young looking men that make up the Queen's Life Guard as they are formally known, they are quite intimidating in their bright red uniforms and signature fluffy black hats pulled low over their eyes.  

In fact, we were watching them so intently that we didn't even realize until their intimidating figures were standing smack dab in front of us directly on the other side of the gate that they actually intended to march right through that very gate.   We scurried backwards to get out of the way as the lead guard stepped forward to unlock and open it, and as the girls' eye grew bigger and bigger watching them, the guards marched right through and continued on their way.  

Boy you just have to love this British monarchy stuff!

We may not have caught a glimpse of the Queen in her private Windsor apartments, but we weren't ready to give up yet.  But first, we had tickets to go see the State Apartments and my oh my, while the outside of Windsor Castle is something to behold, the State Apartments are beyond amazing.  The term "Apartments" is a little misleading as these aren't apartments that anyone actually stays or lives in.  The State Apartments at Windsor Castle are actually for show, they are for entertaining, and it is in these gymnasium sized extravagant rooms that the monarchy welcomes visiting royals, leaders of nations, hosts royal balls and royals teas, you get the idea.  We’ve toured a lot of houses, palaces, castles, etc., but never had we seen anything as magnificent and excessively grand as these State Apartments.  

You enter the State Apartments by ascending a grand staircase guarded on each side by the huge statues of two great black horses, each with a knight in shining armor astride it’s back.  From here, you enter a room three or four stories tall that is decorated with nothing but weapons, hundreds and hundreds of them, guns, swords, spears, knifes, Chinese throwing stars, weapons that I do not even know the name of, all ornately and beautifully displayed.  Yes, beautiful is a strange word to use to describe a collection of weapons, but if you ever visit the State Apartments in person, you will completely understand what I mean.  You enter this first room and your jaw drops to the floor at the sight of this display that surrounds you on all sides.  If the British want to give a great first impression of power and wealth, they do it with a bang.  And the tour only gets better and more lavish from there.  

I wish I had photos to share, but as you might guess, no photos are allowed inside the State Apartments.  We may have snuck one photo, although it wasn't of the State Apartments per say.  It was something we saw in the State Apartments - Queen Mary's Dollhouse which is perhaps the largest and most famous dollhouse in the world.  

Now this is no ordinary dollhouse, as you can imagine.  It was built for a Queen after all (it took nearly four years).  On display behind glass in a room that is larger than most rooms in your or my house, the dollhouse is filled with thousands of pieces of furniture, trinkets, jewelry, hand painted portraits, even a library where the shelves are filled with full versions of miniature books.  It all was designed, created and constructed by leading designers, artists and craftsmen from the time (1921-1924).  There is wine in the wine cellar, hot and cold water running through the pipes, electricity, and toilets that flush.  If you ever make it to Windsor Castle, don't make the mistake of passing up the chance to see this dollhouse because it is something else.

Now, back to our quest to see the Queen.  After seeing the Queen's Life Guard up close and personal, Leah ran into the nearest gift shop and immediately zeroed in on a stuffed bear dressed in the Guard's uniform.  She's a lover of stuffed animals and how could we pass up the opportunity to get her a memento of our visit to Windsor Castle like this.  

And actually, it was a good idea we stopped in that particular shop because it was there that the shop clerk told us about a part of Windsor Castle we hadn't seen yet, and I'm not sure we would have if we had not spoken to her.  

It's called the Long Walk and is a beautiful three mile long avenue that starts at the gates of Windsor Castle and seems to disappear on the horizon and you look away from the Castle.  It takes a little bit of a walk through the streets of Windsor to find it and if you don't know it's there, it would be very easy to miss.  This long straight road is lined with two huge stretches of green grass and trees, the perfect place to eat lunch and wait for the Queen to pass as she heads out of the Castle and back to Buckingham Palace in London.  And that is just what we did.

We bought some Cornish Pasties (one of our favorite quick lunches in England) and a sausage roll for Ellie at a shop in town and found ourselves a spot in the shade on the great, green lawn outside the Castle (yes, occasionally the sun does actually get hot enough in England that you seek the shade of a tree).   And we waited for the Queen to pass by.  

And we waited...

And we waited some more.

When we were done with our Pasties and sausage rolls and she still hadn't passed by, we walked up the Royal Mile for a ways, wondering along the way if either Prince William or Prince Harry were playing in the cricket match we could see from a distance that was taking place inside the Castle grounds.  

But still no Queen.  Now, I was fully prepared to sit there for as long as it took to see her pass by, but we did still have a two hour drive home after being gone for a week on holiday in Germany and Switzerland so reluctantly, we decided to leave having seen no Queen.  

Oh well, I can't complain.  I got to spend the day at Windsor Castle, something I have always wanted to do. 

As we passed back through the gate that ran along the edge of the green lawn, we walked right into a birthday party...

A birthday party for the Queen in fact...

Although the Queen wasn't actually there.  Queen Elizabeth II you see had turned 90 just a couple months before our visit to Windsor Castle.  She is the longest reigning monarch in British history.  Now, one of the many many privledges of being the Queen of England is that you don’t get just one birthday each year, you get two.   


Yes, that is correct.  April 21 is the Queen’s “actual” birth day, but she also gets an "official" birthday which this year happened to be Saturday, the 11th of June.  Why, you ask, does the Queen need an actual and "official" birthday?  Well, the answer is quite simple and can be blamed on the notoriously unreliable British weather.  When it comes to the weather, June just seems like it would be the better month to try and hold birthday celebrations outside.  And that is just what the British like to do for hte Queen's birthday, and this year in particular because turning 90 it a very big deal.  Towns both large and small all across the UK would be shutting down their main streets on June 11 to host gigantic town picnics.  While this “official” birthday was still a week away when we visited Windsor Castle, there were already celebrations going on in the streets.  And that's what was happening here, right outside the gates of the castle, and although small in size when compared to the celebrations that would take place the following weekend, it was a pretty good representation.  British flags and food, wine and cake.  All to celebrate their Queen.  And they had picked a pretty darn nice day to do!

Funny note about that next Saturday, the 11th of June:  It rained, a lot. 

This is my friend Sara and her family who celebrated the Queen's "official" birthday in a town we lived near, Ashby-de-la-Zouch.  It was rainy and cold, but that didn't really matter.  

They still joined all their British friends outside, setting up tables in the streets of the town and having their picnic in honor of the Queen while huddled under umbrellas, because that's just what you do in England.  You can try to outsmart the weather by moving an outdoor celebration to June, but in England, it is anything but a sure bet.