London and Italy Part 1 – London, Oxford, Brighton, Highclere Castle, Bath

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London was our first stop on a 3-week trip to London and Italy. Originally the trip was two weeks in Italy, but then Adam needed to go to London for work, so I went too and played tourist while he worked.

We made it to London in the early afternoon and checked into our hotel. I called my friend Crystal, who had moved there, and she suggested we meet at the British Museum. I was so tired, but I got up, got showered and dressed and met up with her and her newborn baby girl. I’m glad I did. Sometimes you just need to get going. Adam had gone into the office as soon as we checked into our hotel.

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It was cool to see all the things the British have stolen over the years, but it was even better to see her and meet her sweet baby. Crystal has been a friend since my college days, and when we moved to Utah, she was here, so we started spending time together again. Then she moved to Boston, then New York, then London.

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We’ve been to museums all over the world, and we’ve become very selective about what we see these days. The British Museum is one of those you go see no matter how many you’ve seen. It has some of the best artifacts from all over the world. If I had to choose one museum of artifacts in the world, it would be this one.

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How sweet is that little baby! After we walked the museum, Crystal walked me to Adam’s office and we went to dinner with some of the London group.

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These levitators are all over Europe. I figured out how they do it, but I won’t spoil the magic for you believers.

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The next morning I had booked a tour group to do a walking tour and then go to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace before touring the inside, and then go to afternoon tea. We overslept. We slept for over 12 hours. I got ready in about 5 minutes and raced out the door. I made it exactly on time to the meeting place, but they weren’t there. The tour had left 15 minutes before.

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I did manage to take pictures of Big Ben and the London Eye while I was looking for my group.

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So I ran over to the changing of the guard to see if I could spot them. Well, among the THOUSANDS of people there, I did not manage to find them.

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I did get in trouble for climbing up the fence to see, but not before getting to see it from a fantastic view.

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I got yelled at by a security guard. I look scared don’t I?

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So I went to the entrance for group tours into Buckingham Palace and waited. I had spoken to the tour company on the phone, and they told me the guide’s name, what he looked like and what flag he would be carrying. They also told him to be looking for me. I found him, he gave me my ticket and sent me on my way with the audioguide. No pictures allowed in the palace, but with the audio guide and the music that went along with it, it was easy to pretend I was wearing a fantastic gown 200 years ago, and I was walking up the steps to the ballroom to attend a party, and maybe be presented to the queen. It was fun to pretend. Buckingham Palace is only open during the two months the queen is on vacation and not in the palace. I met my group at the end, and our guide took us to tea.

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The promise was tea in one of two nice hotels, either Ruben’s or St. Ermin’s (where we were staying). H-O-W-E-V-E-R, they took us into Ruben’s, through the fancy restaurant and into a dingy little conference room where we were they dropped off our food on cheap little tables, cheap vinyl-covered waiting room chairs, and bare walls to look at. No lovely music, no wait staff, no beautiful surroundings. The tea and the little sandwiches were fine, but half the experience is the ambience. MAJOR. FAIL.

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I liked the sandwiches best. I’ve never been much for sweets. I mostly did the tour to skip the line to the palace, and I did want the tea to be legitimate, so I feel cheated. I would have enjoyed the tour of St. James park and the insightful commentary my tour guide was supposed to provide at the changing of the guard and before we went into Buckingham palace, but I missed it.

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After tea, I called Crystal, and we decided to meet up at St. James park and do my own tour.

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I put it in my Google navigation, and instead of telling me to cross the street, it took me aaalllll the way around the veeeerrrrry large block to exactly where I had been, and THEN it told me to cross the street. Thanks Google.

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I passed several things along the way.

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But I made it.

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I love gardens and flowers.

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I loved that these hanging flower baskets were everywhere. I’m going to do some on my house. London is so beautiful anyway, but details like the hanging baskets all over town just make it even better.

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We went to Trafalgar Square and The National Gallery, the museum full of pilfered artwork. Everything was so vibrant and spectacular. I highly recommend it.

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After the park we went to a tapas restaurant called Fino with Crystal and her husband, Tom.

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I thought the bathroom door sign was funny. I guess in the UK a skirt isn’t enough to know which bathroom to use.

OXFORD

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Bright and early Saturday morning we took a train to Oxford for the day. This fellow behind Adam is in fact not wearing a shirt. He is wearing a blanket. And a very special hat.

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We had some sandwiches for breakfast in the train station. Why can’t we have fast food like this in the US? Fresh tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil on a baguette? Yes! McGriddle sandwich? NO.

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Oxford University was founded in the 12th century and is the oldest English-speaking university in the world.

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Oxford is spectacular

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It was settled in AD 900, and has examples of every type of English architecture. It is called the city of dreaming spires.

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Parts of the Harry Potter films were made here. This is the grand staircase Hogwarts students walk up.

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Hogwarts Great Hall, anyone? Christ Church’s high-ceilinged dining hall was a model for the one seen throughout the films (with the weightless candles and flaming braziers).

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Maybe students at Oxford are too sophisticated to be star struck by eating three meals a day in the Hogwarts Dining Hall, but how lovely to eat your meals in this beautiful room.

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No floating candles today. I think it is important to appreciate the beauty around us, even when it is part of our everyday experience, like eating in a room like this.

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The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Look at that ceiling!

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With a tower dating from 1280 and a perpendicular Gothic nave, this relatively unadorned church (which I happen to love the elegant simplicity of) is most famous as the site of the 1556 trial of three Anglican bishops, including Thomas Cranmer, the first Protestant archbishop of Canterbury, during the reign of Mary I. All three were later burnt at the stake for heresy on Broad St.

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At the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin there is a tower you can climb for a fantastic view. Of course we climbed to the top of the tower. It was only 124 steps.

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Winding narrow stairs, but fortunately I didn’t get claustrophobic. Adam loved that I drug him to the top of every tower we saw the whole trip.

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Radcliffe Camera, the view from the top of the church.

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The views all the way around were spectacular. Well worth the climb!

 

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This is on the ground floor of the Bodleian Library, or the Bod (what the locals call the library).

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We were the last people to quickly be able to look inside and take a couple of pictures. They were closing to set up for a wedding.

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And this is where the mirror of Erised from Harry Potter was filmed. It was also used as the infirmary. At the end of The Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry awakens in the Hogwarts infirmary, filmed in the big-windowed Divinity School, on the ground floor of the Bodleian Library; Ron also recuperates here after being poisoned in The Half-Blood Prince. In The Goblet of Fire (2005), Mad-Eye Moody turns Draco into a ferret in the New College cloister.

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We got to go inside the Bodleian Library and see where the Harry Potter scenes were filmed there. It is an amazing building. In The Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry sneaks into the restricted book section of Hogwarts Library under his invisibility cloak. Hermione reads about the Sorcerer’s Stone here, too. I should note that the Harry Potter connection is NOT why I wanted to see this building. It was just an interesting side note.

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The Bodleian Library is the first copyright library in England and has been collecting published books since 1610. The library has 11 million books in the collection; but is not a lending library. It is the second largest library in England.

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Some of the oldest books in the world are kept here, and they are chained to the shelves. You have to have special permission to use them. The chain is attached to the book and the shelf. It is just long enough to reach the counter below. The librarian is the only person allowed to handle books at the Bodleian.

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We weren’t allowed to take pictures, or touch ANYTHING, or stand too close to anything, or speak the wrong way, or breathe wrong, so I found these pictures online. I can so easily imagine all the scholars who have come here over the years. We were lucky to get a tour last minute. It is something you should book ahead of time or you likely won’t get it. The tour I really wanted to go on is the extended tour, and it was sold out.

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I need to make a phone call.

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The whole town is beautiful.

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We toured the Oxford Castle, which I think is the oldest structure. I know it dates back at least to the 11th century. The tour is done by costumed guides who pretend to be a character from the history of the castle. Our guide was Empress Matilda, who claimed the throne of England, but was besieged in the tower. As the supplies ran out, she escaped.

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After that a well was dug all the way through the hill in case it was every besieged again. It never was.

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The view from the top.

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We went back for a haunted Oxford tour, but it turned out to be more of a hokey comedy act, and not anything spooky. He was very entertaining, but not what we were expecting. There was a lady with a walker, and she couldn’t roll her walker across all the cobblestone, and the guy in the hat wasn’t waiting for her, so Adam and I fell back a bunch to help her.

Before catching the train back to London, we had dinner in the White Horse. The pub dates back to the 16th century and looks every bit of it. My fish n chips were ok, but not awesome. Adam had pot roast and mash, which was decent. Really it’s the atmosphere that is awesome.

HIGHCLERE CASTLE

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I sure like starting my morning with a pasty! Potatoes and beef and gravy and onions oh my! Other flavors were ham and cheese and potatoes, chicken, carrots, potatoes, onions, peas, gravy. It’s basically a handheld potpie, which is genius. What do Americans have? Oh, that’s right, Hot Pockets. Nasty. Why does American food have to be Hot Pockets?

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Sunday morning was the highlight of my trip. We went to Downton Abbey!!!!!! It’s actually called Highclere Castle, and it’s owned by the 8th Earl and Lady of Carnarvon.

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It is only open 60 days a year for tours, and it was closing in 4 days for the rest of the year. We were there the last week it was open for the year! The tickets had sold out last January, and I was crushed. After some digging, I found out they keep some walk up tickets for each day, so we took a big risk.

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We got up really early and took a train, and then a cab, and got there at 8:30 in the hopes we would get tickets for when they opened at 10:00. We got in! We MAY have been the first people there…Since we were so early, we got to tour the gardens pretty much by ourselves.

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The gardens were so peaceful and quiet.

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I loved all the beautiful flowers and the old walls and statues (or just heads).

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It was easy to pretend we were there as guests of the Crawley family, enjoying the grounds.

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I sound like a crazy movie and TV fanatic, but I love Harry Potter (who doesn’t), and I love Downton Abbey. I watch very little TV, but that, I definitely watch.

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That is a fig tree in the corner, along with black eyed susans and salvia

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None of it was perfectly manicured like a French estate, but I prefer the slightly wild look of a cottage garden. I have one at my own house.

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Looks like this one had surgery. Rough winter?

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I loved my morning here. It was so completely worth the risk. I didn’t even know about the gardens, so that as an added bonus.

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You can also get married here, host corporate events, organize a shoot and stay the night for a fee.

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Can’t you just picture walking up the hill to the house to get changed for dinner after reading in the garden that afternoon?

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Carson will be so upset with you if you aren’t changed in time for dinner. Mrs. Patmore will have a fit if you delay dinner.

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No pictures are allowed inside. We got to see the first and second floors. No going inside the bedrooms, but you could see in from the doorways. I got to walk down the staircase into the front hall! I got to see the view from the gallery.

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A lot of Downton’s storyline is based on real events from the history of Highclere Castle, like the house becoming a hospital during WWI.

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The back of the house where the carriage house is (and the gift shop and bathrooms). You can also get tea and scones here, but it just didn’t seem like a quality experience, so I passed. I didn’t want to ruin my Downtown experience with a disappointing tea. I’ll have mine in the drawing room or not at all.

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One thing I didn’t like was that the house had pictures of the current generation, but in cheap, ugly, clear, acrylic frames. Straight from Walmart or its British equivalent.They didn’t belong in the house at all. Buy some nicer frames that blend, ok?

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The 5th Earl of Carnarvon discovered King Tut’s tomb, and down in the basement is a bunch of artifacts the family owns. I’ve now seen King Tut artifacts in New York, The British Museum, and Highclere Castle. Next up: Egypt. Just as soon as it’s safe. The King Tut exhibit costs extra. I’m sorry to say the basement does not house the kitchens as seen on Downton Abbey. Nothing like it.

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The current earl and family live in another home on the estate during the summer when they are filming, and when the house is open for tours in the fall, and the rest of the year they live in the big house.

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We didn’t get to go to any of the upper levels. I did not see the servants quarters. They are probably shot in a studio. There are 11 bedrooms on the first floor, some of which we saw, and 40-50 on the next floors which are no longer used and not part of the tour. They have been gradually refurbished by the 8th Countess over the past 5 years, using prints and drawings from the archives recording some of the visitors and history here. I hope eventually the whole house is opened up. I would definitely go back.

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Why isn’t Carson answering the door? A century ago this home had 60 servants to keep it running. After the fifth earl died in Egypt, his wife spent most of the money. The current Lady Carnarvon has written two books, one about the fifth earl and his wife, Lady Almina, and one about the sixth earl and his wife. I’ve read the first, and need to read the second. It is waiting on my night table. They are available for purchase in the gift shop (where I saw the current lady Carnarvon), but as my wise husband pointed out, they are also available on amazon.com, so I ordered them when I got home instead of lugging them across Europe.

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When we got back to London that afternoon, we decided to visit the Tower of London

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I absolutely loved this poppy display. It is so striking. The art installation is called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London. It was commissioned to mark one hundred years since the first full day of Britain’s involvement in World War One.

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888,246 ceramic poppies filled the Tower’s famous moat between 17 July and 11 November 2014. Each poppy represented a British military fatality during the war. I wish they had left it as a permanent display. I think it was my favorite part of our visit there.

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The poppies encircled the iconic landmark, creating not only a spectacular display visible from all around the Tower, but also a location for personal reflection. The scale of the installation was intended to reflect the magnitude of such an important anniversary and create a powerful visual commemoration.

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All of the poppies that made up the installation were sold, raising millions of pounds which were shared equally amongst six service charities.

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It is just incredible in person. I took tons of pictures of it (obviously).

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We were so lucky on this trip. We never got rained on. We got to see three things that were only available during that time: this incredible poppies display, inside Buckingham Palace, and touring Highclere Castle.

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Prettiest moat I’ve ever seen.

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The view from the Tower while we waited for our tour to start.

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I had no idea the Tower was a huge fortress that protected London for hundreds of years.

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I thought that was the Tower of London before we came. I am admitting to my ignorance. That is the tower bridge, which we did not get to, and is on the list for our next visit.

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The Tower was also a prison for political prisoners.

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Those are living quarters for the beefeaters.

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This dragon is made out of garbage. Our kids would have loved it. Are we the only ones who talk about what their kids would have loved the whole time they are away from their kids?

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While I was taking my picture with this guard, he was walking to me out of the side of his mouth as he went back and forth for the changing of the guard. He wanted to know what all the church bells and commotion were. I told him there was a wedding of one of the beefeater’s daughters. You can only be married in that chapel if you are related to one of them, because they live there. That is their actual parrish.

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I asked him when he was going to be done pacing back and forth so I could take the picture, and he said, “Well you’re a demanding cheeky thing, aren’t you?” I don’t think he is going to make it to palace duty. He’s a motormouth.

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One of the things you can see here is the crown jewels. There is a moving walkway that takes you from one display case to the next. No stopping, no walking backward to keep looking, NO PICTURES, and no touching the glass.

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Our favorite Beefeater. He told some great stories and gave a very entertaining tour. The ER on his uniform stands for Elizabeth Regina – Queen Elizabeth.

The Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Members of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary, popularly known as the Beefeaters, are ceremonial guardians of the Tower of London. In principle they are responsible for looking after any prisoners in the Tower and safeguarding the British crown jewels, but in practice they act as tour guides and are a tourist attraction in their own right, a point the Yeomen Warders acknowledge.

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After the tower we went to St. Dunstan in the East cathedral.

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St Dunstan-in-the-East is situated between London Bridge and the Tower of London and was built in 1100

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It suffered from fire damage from the Great Fire of London in 1666. It was patched up and a Sir Christopher Wren-designed steeple added in 1695.

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It was severely hit during the Blitz in 1941 and the ruins were turned into a public garden in 1971.

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There is some fire damage on the clock tower.

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I love that these benches are partitioned. No sprawling folks. It must have been a mom who designed them.

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A lucky sighting of the number 15

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TJ Maxx around the world.

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Except here it is TK Maxx, and in a beautiful building. So much fancier. I wanted to go in, but it was closed.

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That night we went to dinner at Dishoom, and it was AMAZING. If you can’t have Indian food in India, the next best place to have it is at Dishoom in London (and just London in general). Get there early, that place is rocking all the time. Every bite was music in my mouth.

BRIGHTON 

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Monday morning we were off to Brighton. Adam went to visit the Brighton office, and I went sightseeing. Adam was in London to work. I was there to be a tourist.

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It’s a very beautiful seaside town

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With a very raucous history.

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The Royal Pavilion is a former royal residence located in Brighton, England, United Kingdom. It was built in three stages, beginning in 1787, as a seaside retreat for George, Prince of Wales, who became the Prince Regent in 1811. It has suffered damage from several fires.

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It is often referred to as the Brighton Pavilion. It is built in the Indo-Saracenic style prevalent in India for most of the 19th century. The current appearance of the Pavilion, with its domes and minarets, is the work of architect John Nash, who extended the building starting in 1815. It is gloriously tacky inside. The prince loved to entertain there, and preferred to spend as much time there ignoring his responsibilities as possible.

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Isn’t this kitchen cool?

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No pictures allowed, but I snuck some of the kitchen.

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How could I pass it up?

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The rest of the palace was cool, but the kitchen…

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At the shore there is a cool old carousel

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And beautiful rocks instead of sand. I love rocks. I’ve collected them from various places around the world. I did not take any of these rocks.

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The old pier was destroyed by fire.

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The new pier.

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I asked around where I could find some fish n chips. The ones I had in Oxford were meh. These two locals directed me to a place on the pier. I was doubtful. Usually, you can have the great view or the great food, but never both.

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I bought myself a new hat as I wandered the streets.

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They were right! It was amazing. Or at least, the two bites I got of it. I stood up to get some salt from the next table, and a seagull swooped in and stole my lunch! The people at the table next to me tried to save my food, but it was too late. Those suckers are fast!

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Scoundrel! You should be ashamed!

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So I went back to the counter and asked how much just to get another fish. The French cook said, “7 euro” (typical), the British cook said, “No charge. The birds actually work for us to help us get double orders from every customer, but this time we’ll just let you have it.” So nice.

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I hovered over this one and basically kept my face on it to make sure I got every last bite.

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If you make it to Brighton Pier, this is the place to get your fish n chips. You will love it.

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This is the souvenir I got for my trip to England. This antique copper tea kettle only cost me 32 pounds and the stink eye from my husband. We packed super minimally, and had nowhere to put it, and 2 weeks of intense travel ahead of us. We carried it in arms in a box the rest of the trip. I saw an identical kettle in Bath for 95 pounds. I got a screaming deal.

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We stayed at the beautiful St. Ermin’s Hotel

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It really adds so much to to the trip to stay in historical places.

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In mid to late 19th century, Westminster underwent great changes and expansion, resulting in the creation of St. Ermin’s Mansions in 1889, the building that now forms the basis of St. Ermin’s Hotel. In 1899, the mansion blocks were finally converted into a hotel.

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In 1940 Winston Churchill, held a historic meeting at St. Ermin’s Hotel. He asked a group of remarkable people to join him in ‘Setting Europe Ablaze’ – this elite set, were to become the founding members of the SOE (Special Operations Executive). The unit carried out covert operations during WW2, from their headquarters – an entire floor of St. Ermin’s Hotel, whilst MI6 were stationed two floors above. In the 1950’s the spy Guy Burgess (part of the infamous Cambridge five) handed over secret papers to his Russian counterpart in the Caxton Bar.

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St. Ermin’s continues to play an important part in London’s history, as it is rumoured that a tunnel runs from underneath the grand staircase in the lobby all the way to the houses of Westminster.

 

BATH

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The next day I went to Bath.

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I didn’t get to see enough of it in one day.

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I love historical fiction, and Jane Austen is one of my favorites. There is a Jane Austen museum in her former house, but I didn’t have time to tour it.

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The buildings are all made from the stone quarried locally. At the time people thought it was ugly, but it was convenient. Now it is appreciated. It’s called Bath Stone.

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The whole town is beautiful

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I’m dying to know what kind of ivy this is. It turns the most beautiful shade of red in the fall.

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There was a fashion through the years exhibit.

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The work on these gowns was extraordinary.

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A real ballroom

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The Royal Crescent is a semi circle of townhomes that was a prestigious place to live (and still is). I got to tour #1 .

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The black stains on the stone are from acid rain. In the Circus (another grouping of townhomes that make a complete circle), there are 400 chimneys putting out a lot of soot, and it would rain back down on the buildings, turning them black. In the 1960s the city wanted to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site and cleaned most of the buildings as a beautification project. People were shocked at how light the color of the stone was.

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Bath Abbey

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It was founded in the 7th century

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More beautiful hanging flower baskets.

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Bath, which was settled by the Romans in the 60 AD, is named for the Roman Baths.

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In the 17th century people were proclaiming restorative properties in the natural hot springs, and it became a popular resort town.

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Some of the original Roman architecture.

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Original aqueducts underneath.

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Afterwards I decided to stop for tea at The Grand Pump Room. If it was good enough for Jane Austen, it’s good enough for me.

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I got some raspberry concoction that tasted like unsweetened, watered down koolaid, but far more restorative as an afternoon cuppa, I’m sure. Some say the afternoon tea tradition was started by Queen Victoria’s chambermaid to get her through the afternoon crash we  all seem to get.

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Enjoying my afternoon ritual. I actually might make it a ritual. It’s fantastic. Others say afternoon tea was started by Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford who is said to have complained of “having that sinking feeling” during the late afternoon. At the time it was usual for people to take only two main meals a day, breakfast, and dinner at around 8 o’clock in the evening. The solution for the Duchess was a pot a tea and a light snack, taken privately in her boudoir during the afternoon.

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Later friends were invited to join her in her rooms at  Woburn Abbey and this summer practice proved so popular that the Duchess continued it when she returned to London, sending cards to her friends asking them to join her for “tea and a walking the fields.” Other social hostesses quickly picked up on the idea and the practice became respectable enough to move it into the drawing room. Before long all of fashionable society was sipping tea and nibbling sandwiches in the middle of the afternoon. As most things do, the custom eventually trickled down to the lower classes.

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This lady was dressed up for…something, but she let me take a picture with her.

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I just love all the flowers.

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I wish I had had time to enjoy this park.

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There is more to see and do in Bath, but eight hours wasn’t enough. All the tours breeze through here in three hours. How do you get to see anything? I caught the 5:00 train back to London to meet Adam for dinner.

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We went to Picadilly Circus.

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For dinner we chose a Moroccan restaurant.

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The food was delicious.

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I ordered some pigeon dish, and it came with a warning to chew gingerly because there could be some stray buckshot in there, and you could break a tooth.

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Fortunately, our teeth are intact.

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