Monday, November 10, 2008

Castles and old stuff (Nov. 9, 2008 - London, England)

Christmas came early this year, as the weekend before we left, my family surprised us with tickets for two different bus tours around London that would enable us to see the sights efficiently in the few days we have here. This morning, we went downstairs in our hotel for the supposed included breakfast, only to find a stack of dishes, bins of cereal, and an empty coffee pot. Hmmm. We waited a few minutes before deciding to snoop around in the adjoining storage room for some milk or bread or something. Success! We downed some Rice Krispies with whole milk (gag!!) just in time for the lazy Indian guy behind the counter to come in (20 minutes late) to see that we had helped ourselves. Gotta do what you've gotta do!

The bus picked us up at 8:30am as scheduled, and zig-zagged across town to pick up more people before heading out into the countryside. Windsor is a quaint little town about 30 minutes west of London where the royal families have called home for centuries. The current Queen still spends her weekends here, and we agreed that we would too if we were here - quiet, private, scenic, and an enormous castle perched on top of a hill full of anything that Her Majesty could possibly want. There was even a Pizza Hut right beside it in case the Queen get the late night munchies.

Windsor Castle is the largest inhabited castle in the world, and its countless towers and turrets supposedly house hundreds of rooms, a cathedral, and its own village within its walls. If it weren't for the £15 ($35 Canadian!) admission charge, we would have gone inside to check out the royal digs. Instead, we watched soldiers, guards, and little kids in matching breeches, jackets, and riding boots assemble for the Remembrance Day procession, which is celebrated on the Sunday before November 11th in England. One of the draws for former and present royalty is the adjacent Windsor Great Park, which is a rolling grassy and forested area that gave them a place to hunt and ride. The Long Walk is a 3 mile long path lined with large trees that leads from a statue on the horizon all the way up to Windsor Casle up on the hill. With the sunshine illuminating the fall leaves, it made for a very pretty spot.

Following a walk down the cobblestone streets of Windsor and then along the River Thames, we reboarded the bug and transited across the country to Hampton Court Palace, in the county of Surrey.

Hampton Court Palace was built by a rich priest named Thomas Wolsey in 1520 just as an elaborate place to live. It was eventually handed over to the Royal Family of the time when Wolsey's popularity faded, and it has housed royalty ever since. The architecture was very different from Windsor Castle, partly due to its era, but more because of its purpose. This palace served as a residence and a place to entertain guests rather than as a fortress.
We took the audio-guided tours through some of the royal quarters, which were designed and redesigned each time a new king or queen moved in. Large tapestries, paintings, and elaborate golden arched ceilings adorned each room, and wide corridors and courtyards made the palace quit the navigational challenge. The most interesting part in our eyes was the Tudor kitchens, which shed light on the great lengths these people went to to feed hundreds of people at a time. Large oad barrels filled the wine cellar, 12-foot long wrought iron spears served as massive rotisseries for meat over a big fireplace, and charcoal bread ovens, boilers, and barbecues lined the massive kitchen wing. I found it interesting to know that royalty went to great lengths and expenses to cook the most "rich" food possible (i.e., 75% of their diet was meat) by the most inconvenient means possible (i.e., roasting instead of boiling) just to prove how rich they were. Did you know that pies were invented as a way to bake meat in the oven before the invention of cookware? The simple flour and water dough was not eaten, but just served as an individually-sized crockpot.

Outside the palace, some 60 acres of gardens surrounded the Hampton Court Palace and bordered the Thames to the east. Large fountains, long reflection ponds, manicured trees, a hedge maze, and even the world's oldest grape vine (more than 300 years old!) made up some of the attractions. But the air and wind were so cold that we opted to spend some quality time at the Tiltyard Cafe for some tea and a snack. The cafe is housed in one of the old viewing towers that kings used to watch jousting matches from in the walled arena below.

The rain really began to fall as we made a run for the bus, and if it weren't for driving on the wrong side of the road, we could've easily been in Vancouver! Our last stop of the day was a pub near Victoria Station, where we filled up on nice warm comfort food before calling it a day.

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