- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2006

LONDON — The lore of England is rich with kings and queens and castles. Henry V, Richard the Lion-Hearted, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and George III all walked the realm like giants, with deeds and lives that shaped their times and ours. We think of England, and we think of its castles; we are fortunate that many of these great icons of English history survive.

My wife, Alison, and I took our mothers on a two-week tour of England. Our goal was to view the castles and find the ancestral villages from which both women could trace their roots. We called it the Mums Tour.

My mother, Bernice, and my wife’s mother, Helen, are both in their 80s, very spry, very sharp and lots of fun. We flew into London’s Heathrow Airport on Virgin Atlantic Airlines, a delight even in coach. If you are flying upper class, it is sumptuous. We rented a medium-size sporty five-speed manual-transmission car and set off.

A word about driving in England. Most Americans fear the prospect of confusion and collisions, but driving on the left — to us, “wrong” — side of the road is easy.

About 50 miles southeast of London, our first stop, Leeds Castle in Maidstone, Kent, is an immaculately restored example of what we envision as the classic castle. A favorite retreat of Henry VIII, it is situated on 500 acres and is built on two islands in the middle of a lake. Among its owners was Lord Fairfax, namesake of Fairfax County and mentor to young George Washington. Amazingly, it was a private home for much of the past 200 years. The last owner, Lady Baillie, is credited with the glorious restoration.

By midafternoon, we are off to Canterbury Cathedral, seat of the archbishop of Canterbury. Seeing the white-stone Gothic cathedral towering into the sky, one can only imagine how it would have affected the village peasant of 800 years ago. It was in this cathedral that Thomas a Becket, the archbishop, was murdered by four knights loyal to Henry II. We stand on the spot where Becket was killed, run through by swords. It is chilling. Go behind the altar and view the crypt containing the martyred Becket. It is a moment of the past brought to life.

We travel down the road to Dover. It is not hard to find the fabled white cliffs. They tower all along the coast, 1,000 feet of chalky white rock running north-south beside the English Channel. We wander to the main street and have a delightfully low-key dinner at Blake’s, a fine, genteel establishment. We have — what else — Dover sole. It is delicious.

The next day, we head west along the coast and arrive in the early morning at the stellar ruin of Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. A boyhood fantasy of how a castle should look, Bodiam Castle is square, surrounded by a wide moat, and accessed by a single large drawbridge. Built in the 14th century, it is in ruin except for its imposing exterior walls and towers. Its four massive turrets rise from each corner like giant chess rooks; the grassy ruins of its interior seem to be the result of some cataclysmic decimation rather than centuries of neglect. There is a mythological air about the castle.

We continue into West Sussex to Arundel Castle, seat of the dukes of Norfolk for 850 years. Impeccable in its restoration, Arundel is still the home of the Howards, the duke’s family name. The Howards were Catholics even in times when that was quite dangerous. The third duke of Norfolk was the uncle of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, two doomed wives of Henry VIII.

The fourth duke of Norfolk was beheaded for plotting to marry Mary Stuart — Mary Queen of Scots.

Arundel is remarkable for the grandeur of the castle interiors, the perfect symmetry and flow of its great rooms.

We next head north toward Salisbury. There, beside the highway to Bath, lies Stonehenge. This ancient monument, erected thousands of years ago by peoples who predated the Saxons, stands like an extraterrestrial beacon to antiquity. Two circles of large stones, impossibly balanced, line up perfectly with the sun at the vernal equinox. Druid ruin or prehistoric relic, it is spectacular.

We get out of the car and circle it twice — no, three times as we take a stream of pictures before driving off.

We stop in Filkins and stay at a lovely bed-and-breakfast. The following morning, we make our way to Kelmscott. Because my mother-in-law’s maiden name is Morris, we head for Kelmscott Manor, also known as Morris House. It was the home of William Morris, one of the leading influences of Britain’s arts and crafts movement in the 1800s.

Kelmscott Manor is a magnificent building, officially a Tudor farmhouse, built from stone in 1570. It is the yearning to connect to our roots that has brought us here, and Morris House is a satisfying embrace of Helen’s heritage.

It’s a short drive through Oxford to our next destination, Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, a magnificent Orient Express hotel with one of the finest restaurants in Europe.

Set in the village of Great Milton and built of golden Cotswold stone, the manor house dates from 1634. It was converted by chef Raymond Blanc into the superlative hotel and restaurant it is today. Words do not do justice to this Relais & Chateau stalwart, an architectural gem and a culinary wonder. The impeccable manor and the newer garden wing have individually designed rooms and suites. The grounds incorporate an extensive 2-acre garden filled with winsome sculptures.

We are there for lunch in a glass-enclosed terrace overlooking the flowing gardens. It is a sumptuous treat, worthy of a bottle of Dom Perignon champagne. The five-course chef’s surprise meal is more than a little bit of heaven, the very definition of a superlative dining experience.

The menu changes daily, seasonally, and is always a culinary adventure. Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons is a destination unto itself.

BLENHEIMPALACE

After lunch, we head north to Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill and the home of the dukes of Marlborough. Impressive and ornate, with extensive grounds and fountains set on 2,100 acres of rolling parkland, it is more impressive from the outside than inside, although it is extensively decorated with massive tapestries and period furniture.

We arrive in Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of Shakespeare and grand central station for England’s tourist trade. One can be forgiven for taking in the traditional sights, but not for dwelling on them at too great a length. Stratford is historical, Shakespeare’s house is fascinating, and the town keeps Shakespeare alive with regular performances of his classics. That said, the crush of tourists and the endless hawking of merchandise make it a tedious experience so that it seems more Disneyland than Olde England. More interesting to us are the 300-year-old pubs with their creaking timbers and billowing pints of ale.

We take a second foray into ancestral roots. My mum, Bernice Berliner, is descended from the Bowling and Wigginton families, who left England for America in the 1700s. The Wigginton family roots have been traced back to somewhere east of Stratford, and, remarkably, there it was, a speck on the map, the tiny town of Wigginton.

We arrive while the grass is still wet with dew in the rolling countryside, filled with old but perfectly kept thatched houses. We stop at the old stone church and stand in wonder at this untrammeled, untouched and splendidly preserved English village. It is magical. The sun emerges, and the dew evaporates as we turn onto the main road.

WARWICKCASTLE

We press onward to Warwick Castle, an imposing structure dating from the 1300s. Run by Madame Toussaud’s wax museum, Warwick Castle looks as if the Renaissance Fair was held in the finest medieval castle in England, with jousts, tournaments and pageants. All the more striking is the role it has played in the history of England.

Richard Neville, the first earl of Warwick, was instrumental in the War of the Roses, betraying Henry VI to put Edward IV of York on the throne in 1461, then betraying Edward to restore Henry in 1469 before losing to Edward’s armies in 1471 and being executed.

The infamous Richard III held the castle from 1478 until he was defeated at Bosworth by Henry VII, beginning the royal House of Tudor. The interior rooms have been dressed in Victorian splendor, kept much as they were in the 1800s. The contrast of the medieval experience on the grounds and Victorian manners in the castle creates an interesting effect.

We travel north to York, a compact city with a rich history. We have dinner in the Olde Assembly Hall, an excellent restaurant. The following day, we take a walking tour through the town. The highlight is York Minster, another towering white Gothic cathedral, which dominates the city skyline. Shopping in York’s narrow streets is fun, and the city as a whole has a decidedly provincial feel — interesting, but not wholly enthralling.

Along the way south to London, we stop at Burghley House, a grand, eccentric but endearing palace built between 1555 and 1587 by William Cecil, lord high treasurer for Elizabeth I.

Burghley House is one of the grandest homes of Elizabethan England. It has 35 main rooms, 80 lesser rooms and almost as many turrets and towers. Its furnishings and artifacts are glorious, and each room is distinctive and, surprisingly, never redundant. Blenheim Palace could learn a thing or two from Burghley House.

We arrive in London and head straight for the Park Lane Hotel in Mayfair; its splendid, spacious rooms overlooking the park; and the reliability of five-star service and a proper martini.

About that martini. It seems an odd conspiracy is occurring throughout England. Bernice is a confirmed martini drinker, preferably made with Tanqueray or Bombay Sapphire Gin. Here we are in the land of the juniper berry, and these premium brands are nowhere to be found.

At every stop along the way, the only gin available has been Gordons. It has become a comic ritual. So, imagine the relief of sitting down in the elegant bar of the Park Lane and being brought two glistening Sapphire martinis, up, with an onion and an olive, perfectly chilled. Bernice knows that London is her kind of town. The drought is over.

We start our first day in London at Westminster Abbey, a stunning physical neighbor of Parliament and Big Ben and the site of the coronation of every English monarch since 1066. It is the final resting place for a plethora of English monarchs. Stand before the tomb of Edward the Confessor, the last Anglo-Saxon king, or stare at the crypt of Elizabeth I.

Here, in front of us, are the remains of Henry V, hero of the Battle of Agincourt. There, the final resting place of Henry VII, the first Tudor king, of Mary Stuart, Charles Dickens, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling and Laurence Olivier. It boggles the mind and brings you so close to so many giants of history.

From there we move on to the Tower of London, begun by William the Conqueror in the 11th century. The central and oldest building, the White Tower, has remained virtually unchanged since the 16th century. Here is where the great Plantagenet Henry II held sway, Richard III is believed to have ordered the murder of the little princes, Henry VIII ingrained his rule into historical consciousness, and Elizabeth I secured her rule.

We stand on the spot where Anne Boleyn was beheaded or in front of Traitors Gate, where Sir Thomas More was brought by boat to face charges of treason for opposing Henry VIII’s break with Rome.

Visitors can see the suit of armor Henry VIII wore into battle. You can feel the man in the room, hear the footsteps of Oliver Cromwell.

This group of buildings also houses the crown jewels, laid out in an extraordinary enclosure. A long glass case set on a raised platform holds the treasure of England while visitors glide by on a slowly moving walk. To see the royal crowns and scepter, the Star of India diamond and the ermine robes is to feel a part of the pageantry of myth that we all have imagined.

That evening, we attend a classic British comedy at one of the smaller West End theaters. The raked stages of the older theaters speak of a tradition all their own. The mums are in their element, drinking in the town as if they are in their 20s, it is the 1940s, and the West End is ablaze with theaters and drawing-room farces.

MUMSATWINDSOR

The next day, we make the trek to Windsor Castle, identified with the modern monarchy but stretching back centuries as the country home of the royal family. Along the way, we stop at Runnymede, a simple field where the barons of the time — in 1215 — persuaded King John to sign the Magna Carta, which, among other reliefs, established a council that evolved into Parliament.

Windsor Castle, built by William the Conqueror, is magnificent. Henry II built the iconic Round Tower and the state apartments in the Lower Ward with halls to entertain his court and separate private apartments in the Upper Ward for himself and his family. This arrangement remains.

The castle is a marvel, all the more so because it is the active seat of the royal family in modern times. Charles I and Henry VIII are buried in St George’s Chapel, which has been restored following a disastrous fire in 1992.

Queen Victoria spent the greater part of the year here; Elizabeth II treasures Windsor as her true home and spends most weekends here. Windsor is perfectly preserved, overwhelming in effect and presence.

The Tower and Windsor Castle make a fitting climax to our mums’ tour. We are not done, but all that follows is the denouement. We stop at Hampton Court, country home of Henry VIII, and wander through its grounds. The next day, we watch the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, a splendid spectacle full of pomp and parading — and very popular with tourists.

On our final day, shopping is a delight that leaves the mums gasping at the price tags even as they revel in the experience. We visit Kings Road, wander through Notting Hill and stop at Kensington Palace. We pass Royal Albert Hall, which the mums know best from the Alfred Hitchcock thriller “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

We stop to visit longtime friends in their town house near Buckingham Palace for high tea in a splendid drawing room and for wild stories of London high life in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The mums have worn their best clothes for the occasion. The look of delight on their faces is priceless. High tea indeed.

An amazing two weeks is coming to a close, and there is never enough time to do justice to London, let alone the entire country. We have seen glories of the past and found some ancestral connections. More than that, Alison and I have shared an amazing experience with the mums, with memories we will treasure as much as they will.


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