Thursday, June 29, 2017

UK Day 8–In Which We Visit Royalty and Arrive in London

Highgrove Garden Tour

Highgrove House, the Country Home of Prince Charles and Camilla, is one of those special places that take a fair amount of planning in advance to make sure you actually get there. It was my mum’s suggestion to plan a garden tour and so, months ago, I got on their website and scheduled us in to one of the few remaining time slots that were still open during our window of opportunity. A few weeks later an important-looking glossy purple folder arrived in the mail. Inside were 5 tickets (one for my mum who sadly was not able to come on this trip –we miss her so much! Hi mum!) and a brochure outlining the requirements of our visit: we were to arrive no earlier than 15 minutes before our time slot, photo ID would be checked, absolutely no photography on site (sorry!) and no phones allowed within the grounds. There were also mysterious instructions to find the place once we had entered the village of Doughten, near Tetbury: proceed for 1 mile, follow the high stone wall until it ends, turn right just before the end of the 30mph zone. What?  We had run into a spot of traffic trouble at the Chippenham Roundabout from Hell which had put us behind by about 15 minutes so we were a bit breathless when we turned down what looked like any driveway anywhere. Terra soon spotted security cameras though and as we turned the corner, we came upon a checkpoint, complete with highly armed soldiers, and a very nice man in a suit who had our names down on a clipboard.”You’re a bit late” he said, very nicely, and encouraged us to go “as quickly as you can down the drive and into the car park where John will meet you”.

Here are the only pictures I took, at risk of certain death:


What does that even mean?


John did indeed meet us, and after another very nice admonishing for being late, checked our ID and tickets and sent us into the Reception. There a very nice woman with a clipboard whose name was probably Tabitha or Caroline (the woman, not the clipboard) met us, once again pointing out that we were late, but not to worry as our guide would come and get us shortly.

Cicely, our guide, has worked at Highgrove for over 30 years and so knows every corner inside and out. When she started, the grounds were mostly just fields and so she has seen the full results of the  transformation that Prince Charles has made since he bought the property in 1980. As I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures, you’ll have to believe me when I say that what followed was two hours of bliss for anyone who has ever enjoyed gardens, or gardening. Our group tramped through 22 acres of gardens ranging from a cottage garden full of roses and delphiniums, to a massive walled kitchen garden where we walked through a tunnel of sweet peas and under an arbour of ancient crab-apples, to a huge wildflower meadow, then through an arboretum with rare Japanese maples beside flowering dogwoods, and into a large shade garden known as the stumpery where we saw Prince William and Harry’s childhood tree house, which has been lowered and is now a favourite of Prince George ad Princess Charlotte. Prince Charles has a ‘Let it be’ approach to gardening and so we saw many areas where weeds are left to grow and fallen trees are left as habitat for animals and birds.

The house itself is out of bounds, but we all felt sure that the Prince was home as his royal standard was flying and there was a lot of security about the place including actual policeman in the bushes etc.

Another clue was that the Royal Photographer was on the grounds and had offered to take pictures of our group. We took him up on it – that’s the picture you see up top.

After our tour, we had an amazing lunch in the Orchard CafĂ© which serves local food as much as possible. We may have lingered a little too long over lunch though as we had a train to catch back in The Real World, in Salisbury to be exact which is about 1hour 45 minutes away, and we hadn’t left ourselves much time. So it was another very fast drive back to Salisbury and to the car rental office where I practically threw the keys at Ralph, my local Car Hire Expert, jumped in a taxi and hurled ourselves into the train.

This also marked the official end of the Driving Games  and the results are displayed below on Travis’ official scorecard, which he diligently kept on his lap the entire time we were in the car:


Yes, that’s right, I won at Dead Badger.

We were definitely sad to leave the countryside,and Travis and I fell into a depression which could only be lifted by drinking Ribena on the train. Terra dealt with it by promptly falling asleep.


It was easy to find our apartment which happens to be located above the Ravi Shankar Vegetarian Indian restaurant. It’s not easy to find a four bedroom flat in London for a reasonable price so I felt pretty happy that a) it was actually there and b) that it was good. We have managed to deal with the fact that there is no living/dining room by all piling into my room to eat breakfast together and hang out.

Also, this building is just down our street. Sherlock Holmes fans will instantly recognize this as the location for Sherlock Holmes’ flat in the TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch, who unfortunately was nowhere in sight


Maybe I’ll see him tomorrow.

London is my favourite city and I’m happy to be back here. More tomorrow.

Danks for thieving,



Wednesday, June 28, 2017

UK Day 7–In Which There is a Cabinet of Curiosity and We Downton Abbey Around the Place


Zoe, bringing back Victorian fashion with style.

We have been averaging about one stately home per day on this trip; fortunately none of them so far have been duds and today’s was no exception. Stourhead House and Gardens is renowned for its gardensand they didn’t disappoint. It helped that we arrived early before the throngs of Kev and Pams and June and Tonys arrived with their sensible footwear and Nordic walking poles, bless them. We started with a tour of the house which was slightly boring although I did love all the tiny little men and woman who were in each room just waiting to regale us with exciting little known facts about the room. I think being short is a requirement of the job. Anyway they did know their stuff, especially the woman in the Cabinet Room, Marjory, which, you may be surprised to learn, is full of cabinets (the room, not Marjory).


At first glance they looked a bit on the cheap side, but Tiny Marjory quickly dispelled that by explaining that this particular cabinet was commissioned by Pope Pius VI to store valuables in the Vatican. It was purchased by the owner of Stourhead, Henry Hoare, for “far too much money” after he found it languishing in a convent in Rome. The rumour goes that it was sold to an Italian family and then inherited by a young woman who became a nun and had to give up all personal possessions. The story does not reveal how Harry came to be in a dusty corner of a convent in the first place but I guess what goes in the convent, stays in the convent…

At any rate, he bought it and it was shipped, in several pieces, back to England to Stourhead where it remains today. At 13 ft high and weighing an imperial ton (2200lbs) and covered in semi-precious and rare stones, it is anything but cheap. Btu the really interesting thing about this cabinet is that is houses over 150 secret compartments, two of which, claims Tiny Marjory, have yet to be found and opened.


Sorry about the terrible photo…

There were one or two other interesting things in the house including this note, that was obviously written by Travis:


We went downstairs after touring the house to watch a short movie on the restoration of the cabinet where they show how the compartments are hidden. This was very fascinating, but not as fun as what we found in the kids play room downstairs:





We did short a re-enactment of a scene from Downton Abbey where Anna (Terra) presents Lady Sybil (Zoe) with a drink, while Captain Bowels-Apples (Travis) writes his memoirs. You’ll have to wait for that though as it is still in editing. The four of us did take a short turn round the grounds in our period costumes, posing for several pictures before coming back inside to change. Except for Travis who prepared for bed:


Escapades over, it was of course time for a picnic and a walk through the extensive grounds.



The Gothic Cottage, which I feel sure is where the tiny little man in the photo below lives, has a place where you can leave a message about pretty much anything.



I tried going through the hole to another universe but I was too short.

After churning up the grounds, we left Stourhead and drove to Salisbury where I was determined to see the Cathedral, view the Magna Carta (as one does) and see the town even though it was pouring. The Cathedral was very impressive and cathedral-like with all sorts of amazing features like housing the world’s oldest working clock and things like that. But what was most impressive was this art exhibit Dispersing the Night by Brazilian Ana Maria Pacheco:




I felt like I was in the middle of a myth or a story in the making. Very moving.

There is also a beautiful font in this cathedral where the water, still like a sheet of glass, slides off the corners in four columns that drop to the floor and disappear.


Salisbury Cathedral is one of four locations where original versions of the Magna Carta are still held and on display for public viewing so we did our duty and stared at the tiny letters that crowd each other into words, all to say that it really is better to be good to each other than horrible and that those in positions of power should not abuse that power. Duh.

We rounded the day out with a spot of shopping, and then drove home. I will admit to spending the evening watching my guilty pleasure, English trivia quiz shows, The Chase in particular.

We are leaving the cottage tomorrow for London, but not before spending two hours at Highgrove House, the home of Prince Charles and Camilla.

Spanks for bleating,



Tuesday, June 27, 2017

UK Day 6–In Which We Meet the Village Drunk and Almost Flip Our Canoe.


This may or may not be our fourth Cream Tea…

The district of England known as the Cotswolds is well known for being picturesque, but Bradford-on-Avon is definitely next level gorgeous. Many of these villages have concealed services so there isn’t even a power pole or telephone wire to mar the view of ancient buildings and narrow cobbled streets bursting with flowers.



We wondered the tiny streets checking out the shops and various Very Old Buildings, the best of which is a Saxon Church that dates from 700AD. This is one of the best known examples of an intact Saxon church in England.


It was a hot day and so we spent some time in the cool interior soaking up the atmosphere.


Travis was, of course, overcome with the spirit.



It did feel a little Game of Thrones in there, and I kept expecting the Man With No Face or whoever he is to show up dragging a blind Arya Stark and going on about  how ‘A Girl must not blah blah blah’.

After doing our church duty, the next obvious thing to do in a quaint English Village is to have a picnic beside the River Avon, of course, so we did exactly that. The picnic was much like most picnics except that we had the added benefit of the village drunk as entertainment, as well as his sister.

I was trying not to let them see me take a picture of them... He’s the one who looks a bit like Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin.


We struck up a bit of a conversation over my use of the garbage bin which apparently is rare, according to him. The rest of the conversation went like this (really – this actually happened!):

Me: Have you caught any fish in the river?

Robert Plant: Av ownly just got ‘ere. My ‘obby is acshully berd-watchin.

His Sister: And ‘e downt mean the flyin’ kind.


Me: Right hahaha of course.

Robert Plant: Do you want to  ‘ave a cast? Do you fish?

Me: I don’t but my son does. He fishe….

Robert Plant: Is that him (gestures to Travis) he can come and ‘ave a cast if he wonts?

Me: Oh no no, he’s my friend and that’s my daughter and her fri…

Robert Pant: It’s awright, you don’t need to explain to me.

Me: oh no really it’s…

(Robert Plant’s sister has a coughing fit)

Robert Plant to his sister: Don’t go doyin’ on me luv. If you do, I’m just goin’ to stand you up in the telephone box and run away anyways.


Me: Well nice chatting with you two. See you later!

We had another group encounter with Robert Plant a few minutes later and he was actually very helpful  in directing us to our next activity which was, of course, canoeing down the Avon-Kennet Canal with a stop at another VOB first, the local Tithe Barn.


The barn dates form the 12th Century or something like that and is a fantastic example of a Very Old Barn. A local theatre company were right  in the middle of set construction for a production of Romeo and Juliet which opens in 3 nights, which didn’t stop Travis from getting into this very old sarcophagus that was just outside the doors.



Time to move on…

We walked down the canal to a local launching/mooring spot and got set up in our canoe. It was very easy and there weren’t any requirements for safety equipment and no long list of rules, just an advisement not to actually touch the canal water as it is disgusting, which it kind of is…


I was paddling up front, Travis was steering (and I use the term loosely) in the back, and Zoe and Terra lounged around in the middle. All went smoothly and we enjoyed a leisurely paddle up the canal, even making it as far as the local aquaduct, which is basically a bridge for boats that in this case, travelled over the River Avon below and also a set of train tracks. Everything went well until, on our way back, we had an incident with some brambles and a dead rat floating nearby and we all nearly flipped the canoe. We had only just recovered from that close call when we found ourselves right between two boats approaching from each direction. I’m pretty sure the first boat were day trippers as the women started shrieking at us to move out the way (which we were) and at the boat coming the other way to also get out the way. There was a bit of chaos, and then it was all over and we were back on our merry way. We were obviously not going fast enough for Terra however as she quickly fell into coxswain mode and was barking orders at us to ‘HOLD’ and to do a ‘POWER TEN NOW!’ and ‘FASTER’.

We made it back to port without further incident and back into town just in time for tea at yet another fantastic old tea house.




Never miss an opportunity to check your hair…

At some point we also hiked up a fantastic example of a hill and bought groceries at fantastic example of a grocery store before getting into our fantastic example of a car and driving home to our fantastic example of a cottage.

I’m sorry to report that there were no dead badgers today due to a road safety campaign recently introduced by the local badger council and a series of PSAs aimed at young badgers to teach them about road safety. Terra is still in the lead in Pub Legs and Travis is still winning at Hill Forts. Who knows what tomorrow will bring in the exciting world of driving games!

Shanks for preening,



Monday, June 26, 2017

UK Day 4 and 5–In Which There are Donkeys, Fossils, and a Giant Hamburger.


When Travis asked me a few months ago if we could go to a Donkey Sanctuary in Devon, I was happy to go. And so we set off at the crack of 11am (bit of a late start) and drove two hours south west to the seaside town of Sidmouth in Devon, home of The Donkey Sanctuary. As we approached, the excitement in the car was palpable and I had to restrain Travis from getting out of the car before I had even stopped the vehicle. 500 donkeys live here, rescued from various places of misery and brought here to live out their lives in peace and quiet. Well, peace, anyway.

We weren’t the only ones at the Sanctuary – it was actually really busy there. Who knew donkeys would be that popular. Anyway before I knew it I was being whisked off to view this pen of donkeys and that mule and then back over here to see another pen of donkeys that were allegedly different than the first pen. Somehow, two hours passed in what I will admit was one of the most charming and peaceful places I’ve been to in a long time. I also learned more than any one should ever need to know about donkeys, mules, and also hinnies. What’s a hinnie, you ask? Apparently, a mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse, and a hinnie is that of female donkey and a male horse. That is sure to come up at Quiz Night so you’re welcome.

The place is full of signs like this which many people were reading with great seriousness. I think some of these donkeys have a fan base – the place is extremely popular and even had an overflow car park.


The good folks at the Donkey Sanctuary want to make absolutely sure there is no way you will get lost while trying to find Walter and Timothy.

There are also many attempts to get you to adopt a donkey (by way of a monthly donation in a certain donkey’s name). They really pull out all the stops with posters like these all over the place:




I’m not exactly sure how Zena’s inspiration manifests itself in all of us but I’ll give it a go.

Much of the walkways around the grounds are lined with commemorative plaques from loved ones of the dearly departed who, I am assuming, loved donkeys. This was my favourite:


I’d like to know exactly what our Leonard was up to allowing so many to have such fun with his physiology. Dorothy certainly appreciated it. Dear old Len.

I’m sure there’s more to be said about donkeys but I can’t quite think what it is at present as it turns out that after a while, one donkey is much like another.


Suffice to say, Travis LOVED the donkeys, especially this one – he was a giant breed (the donkey, not Travis) whose name escapes me just now – you’ll have to trust me.

We finished the tour off with some time with the elderly donkeys and also the blind donkeys. Apparently, a blind donkey will bond with a seeing donkey, who will actually lead the blind donkey around by its collar. I didn’t actually witness this happening but I’ll believe it.

Reluctantly, we said our goodbyes to the donkeys as it was time to move on to the beach.

The coast in this part of England is known as the Jurassic Coast. Huge cliffs line the beaches, revealing 185 million years of geological history in the form of deposits,fossils and geological features. Our destination was Charmouth, another seaside community a few miles east of Sidmouth, where it is easier to find your own fossils.


We are a competitive group and so a race was on to be the first to find a legit fossil.



It was harder than I thought to find a fossil and no one was having much luck. I was happy, however, to find this fossil of…the Lorax? 


Eventually we did come across some fossils thanks to some locals who felt sorry for us and basically put them in our hands.


Zoe was the real winner though as she actually found a real fossil which I don’t have a picture of as my camera battery died.

By now it was getting late so I had to forego my plan to swing by the town of West Bay where I was planning a re-enactment of the scene from Broadchurch where Danny’s body is found at the bottom of the cliffs; I was going to be David Tennant, Zoe was going to be Danny and Travis was going to be Miller, while Terra played Beth. Anyway it didn’t happen and instead we went the wrong way in town and happened to see this building instead so it was all worth while:



Catherine of Aragon being, of course, the first wife of Henry VIII, and King Charles II being, of course, King Charles II.

My life now complete, we headed for home where we had a late dinner which featured, among other things, a giant hamburger that we made to fit the Sally Lunn Bunn that you will recall we had purchased in Bath the day before (keep up, people keep up). It was actually delicious.


It was a bit of a late night but that didn’t matter as we all had a day off today from touring around and spent it embracing cottage life by doing a puzzle, watching Harry Potter, going for a walk through the fields, and getting Indian food takeout. We did have a moment of hilarity at the Indian takeaway place when Travis asked a woman where we could get some groceries in town as everything seemed to be closed. In the UK, a garage is where you buy gas and is pronounced gah-ridge.

Travis: Excuse me is there a supermarket in town that is open?

Woman: Probably the gahridge convenience store is your best bet. The petrol station up the road. Wot you afta?

Travis (not wanting to say toilet paper): Oh just a few things

Woman: yeah the gahridge is likely best. Just go up the road, turn right, then turn left, then bear left then go over the bridge and then turn at the brewery and then turn left and come back over the bridge and turn left and right at the same time and you can’t miss it.

A few moments passed while we try to figure out what she just said.

Travis: So it’s Garry’s convenience store?

Woman (looking confused while Zoe and I cry tears of silent laughter in the corner): Erm…it’s the petrol station…the gahridge? Petrol station? you go up the road turn ri…

Travis (interrupting: Oh ok so Garry’s convenience. Yes I think we have the directions. Thanks very much.

Woman (still looking confused) Right. You’re welcome.

Fortunately our food arrived and so were all saved from further awkwardness although I was laughing so much I could hardly pay.

We’re back in the car tomorrow for a trip to the Cotswolds.

Ranks for teething-



PS – By the way the score for Dead Badger is now Jane 6-Travis 1. Terra still leads in Pub Legs despite some tough competition from Zoe and Travis. Tomorrow will bring fresh territory so we should see some big increases in scores.