Our Trip To England, March-April 2005

by Michelle Erica Green

We stayed Tuesday night, March 22nd, at a hotel in Virginia so that we could get up early and get to the airport without worrying about traffic. Dulles was its usual madhouse - we flew out of Kennedy in New York last time and the security lines seem much shorter but that may have been because we took the red-eye and not a morning flight. It was strange to lose an entire day over the Atlantic; they fed us hot croissants and fruit soon after we boarded, and then lunch/dinner two hours outside of London, when it was already getting dark outside. I had hoped to see the Irish coast, which was overcast the last time we flew over it, but this time it was entirely dark by the time we got there. We did get to see a spectacular sunset hitting the clouds from above. The kids watched The Incredibles and whatever was on United's Disney channel; Paul and I watched The Village, which neither of us had ever seen (I think for this film, it helps to be spoiled about the plot twist; I can see how this is one that would seem like a cheap gimmick if you didn't know it was coming, but once you're looking for it, there are some neat, if sometimes implausible, things going on). Later out of sheer boredom I watched most of The Princess Diaries 2, which was quite entertaining in a guilty-pleasure way (Julie Andrews singing, one Prince Charming and one Mr. Not-So-Charming, plus a feminist campaign to stop the princess from having to marry to ascend the throne). We missed the ending because they collected the headsets but I supposed the hype over Charles and Camilla's impending nuptials would be enough royal wedding for me.

We had an unlicensed driver try to snag us at Heathrow but made our way with all our luggage to the actual cab stand, where our driver gave us the scenic route into town, past Harrods, around Picadilly Circus and through the theatre district. We were staying at the Royal National Hotel in Russell Square in the heart of Bloomsbury, courtesy a friend's travel vouchers, within walking distance of both Covent Garden and the British Museum. The hotel is absolutely enormous and had about fifteen busloads of foreign tourists pull up right before we did, so it took almost an hour to check in, after which we were completely exhausted despite having lost several hours of our day. Paul went out with Adam and found a sandwich place across the street, where he grabbed food for all of us while I tried to get ahold of my friends in the city; then we slept...quite well, as the hotel is very quiet despite the crowds. In fact, besides the mobs in the lobby, the only drawback was the lack of internet in the hotel, either via telephone in the room or in the public areas. London newspaper headlines were all about the Queen snubbing Camilla...a nice break from Iraq and Terry Schiavo, actually.

We got up early Thursday for the Royal National's massive continental breakfast machinery: they move several hundred people through an enormous dining room with countless eggs, bowls of cereal, ham, sausage, toast, etc. Daniel ate enough food for three people and spent the rest of the day complaining about his stomach. We took the Tube first to Westminster Abbey via the embankment of the Thames, where we walked up to Cleopatra's Needle, then followed the river across from the London Eye and the aquarium in the old County Hall before turning inland at Big Ben. I was pleased to see war protests in full swing across from the Houses of Parliament. Last time the Abbey was closed for services on the days we were in London (Good Friday to Easter), so this time we made sure to go on Maundy Thursday when we'd checked to make sure it would be open. I have always wanted to see the tomb of Elizabeth I - the image of her face is the only one made from an impression - and really there is a discovery every two steps in there, from the stone covering Aphra Behn on a side corridor to the statue of Shakespeare in the Poet's Corner.

From Westminster Abbey, we went to lunch; we'd planned to eat at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub dating back to 1667 where we ate last time with my friend Vera and which was a favorite of Dickens and Boswell, but it was overcrowded and understaffed, so we just grabbed sandwiches at a very good little cafe across the street and went to the Knights Templar's Temple Church, which had also been closed for Easter rehearsals the last time we were in London. The stained glass is spectacular, and the graves of the knights inside are quite moving, but Adam's favorite thing was the giant Ten Commandments at the front of the church in which it spelled out that thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's ass. Here, as at Westminster, I was in the church when the dean/minister/vicar (I have no idea of the correct titles for these people) took a moment for prayer in honor of Holy Thursday and for peace. Having already seen the two churches, we headed back by way of St. Paul's, which we did not go inside this trip but walked around and rested by the statue of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. We stopped for a bathroom break in a McDonald's because it was the closest restroom we could find when the kids demanded one and discovered that the British not only have chicken curry McChicken sandwiches, but Cadbury Egg McFlurrys. If the US is going to have McDonalds, we should get these too!

After a brief stop in an internet cafe so I could send an "I'm alive" message to our relatives, we had a relatively quick dinner in the hotel from the same sandwich shop across the street where we had grabbed food the night before so that we could go to the British Museum, which is open late on Thursdays. We saw the Parthenon exhibit, which we had missed last time while looking at the British and northern European rooms, and we saw the parts of the Egyptian and Assyrian exhibits still open so late. (And of course the Rosetta Stone, which we did see last time but who can resist.) I am ambivalent on the issue of who should have the Parthenon relics, since the British Museum did acquire them legitimately whether or not the late Ottomans had any business letting them go, and since the British Museum has preserved them and kept them on display free to the public. Selfishly, I am grateful that they were in London rather than at the New Acropolis Museum which is not yet finished and is not displaying the sculptures currently in Greece.

Click here for London photos.

When we came back my friend Vera stopped by to make plans for the next day because apparently the hotel had not been relaying her messages to us. She had promised us a tour of the Greenwich museums, and we had promised Adam that, like last time, we would take a boat in at least one direction. Because there were so many tourists in town for Easter weekend, we decided that we should take the boat back from Greenwich to Westminster and take the bus there on Friday morning, which also made the kids very happy as they had wanted a double-decker bus ride. We arrived in Greenwich via the front row of the upper level and walked through the touristy part of the city to the hill in the park where Queen Elizabeth's Oak and the ruins of a Roman temple are located. (The last time we were in Greenwich, two years ago, the kids climbed the trees for so long that the Maritime Museum had closed by the time we got there.) This time we walked down to the water to eat lunch in a tavern called Trafalgar (which seemed entirely appropriate for eating in Greenwich, where we figured we should have fish and chips). We also took the tour of the great tea-trade clipper ship Cutty Sark, which fortunately was open despite the fact that it is undergoing extensive repairs. The kids made model paper ships below, where there is a display of historic mastheads, while the adults looked at the exhibits on the history and restoration of the ship. Then we went to the Royal Naval College and Maritime Museum for rushed views of the chapel and exhibits - the Nelson anniversary display goes up in July, but there was still plenty of memorabilia on display, swords and silver and a big display on steamships, plus the entire stern of HMS Implacable, which fought at Trafalgar alongside Victory.

Click here for Greenwich photos.

We took a cruise back down the Thames, with both Vera and the boat's guide pointing out sites of interest including centuries-old inns, the Gherkin, the Tower of London, the various bridges and Big Ben - which we learned from the guide is really the name of the bell in the clock tower and not the clock itself. From Westminster we took the Tube to the hotel for a quick dinner, then rushed back to the Tube to get to Her Majesty's Theatre for The Phantom of the Opera. The theater is stunning; the production looks great; the Phantom was good, though not as good as Michael Crawford or Colm Wilkinson whom Paul and I had seen in 1988 and 1990 respectively, but that may be because he was saddled by a Christine who overacted to compensate for her limited singing skills. This did not bother the kids, however, who despite having seen the movie twice were riveted, particularly when the Phantom showed up in the angel on the roof which doesn't happen in the film. Despite a crowded late night Tube ride back, we got none of the earlier complaints of sore feet.

Click here for Thames photos.

Saturday after a ridiculous wait for our rental car and a nearly two-hour delay, we set off from London. Our first stop was the Rollright Stones in Great Tew, a circle of stones, megalith and burial chamber from the Bronze Age. The stone circle is considerably smaller than those at Stonehenge and Avebury but because the stones are small and more porous, one can walk right up and see the flowers and fungi growing on them. (Unfortunately they are also easier to vandalize; someone had recently splattered yellow paint around much of the circle.) The visitor's center has divining rods for loan and people were dowsing in the center of the circle, a form of divination about which I know nothing. Across the road is the larger King Stone, fenced in to avoid similar vandalism problems, and a bit further on are the tombs called the Whispering Knights.

We stopped for lunch at one of the many inns we passed in the various towns we drove through; this one was called the Red Lion and I'm not even certain whether it was in Great Tew, Chipping Norton, Long Compton or Lesser Rollright (do town names anywhere in the world get better than this?) where we had sandwiches with excellent chips and vinegar. Then we drove to Birmingham, where the original plan was to go to the reservoir to see the two towers that might have inspired Tolkien for The Two Towers, but after getting lost twice and with the sky clouding up, we gave up and went to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, where there are several rooms of Pre-Raphaelite paintings among a number of excellent collections including an exhibit on the art of historic Palestine - Jewish, Christian and Moslem. I had been told that Birmingham was an industrial city and was surprised at how pretty I found the parts of it we saw; there's a giant ferris wheel, not on the scale of the London Eye but still impressive, that dominates the skyline, and many beautiful old buildings. I thought it was prettier than Bath, which we saw two years ago and which seemed rather drab to me outside of the Roman baths themselves.

During our three hour drive north past Sheffield and through Richmond to get groceries, the sky clouded over and we saw the first real rain I ever experienced in England despite rumors of bad weather on a regular basis. We had forgotten to pack our CDs, and the only one we had with us was a freebie from that morning's Daily Express with one-hit wonders - such disparate tunes as "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and "99 Red Balloons." The various BBC stations we picked up were covering the death of former Prime Minister James Callaghan rather than playing music, so we listened to it over and over and now I will associate those songs with grazing sheep and the bunnies by the side of the road on the way into Yorkshire. We saw huge colorful pheasants along the stone wall by the road near Blenheim Palace, which we got to see briefly through the gates of the estate, and Adam kept track of the colorful pigeons of a variety that we don't have at home.

We stopped for groceries on the way to the cottage where we were staying in Barningham, just across the border in County Durham - two bedrooms, a living room, an upstairs den, a kitchen - altogether an entirely civilized arrangement since there were plenty of places the kids could go hide from us and vice versa. I had my first internet connection in days and sent quick notes to all the people with whom I needed to check, and we ate non-restaurant food for the first time since arriving in England. Dove Cottage is quite isolated, down a gravel drive and backing up to the Heath House garden and farm; it has two fireplaces and is well-appointed with books, videotapes, games, puzzles, and that all-important convenience while traveling, a washer and dryer...a very nice blend of cozy and modern. In addition to an already-well-stocked kitchen, the proprietors had left us fresh eggs from the farm, milk and wine.

Click here for Rollright Stones and Birmingham photos.

Easter morning I was awoken for the first time in my life by sheep bleating a short distance away. When we drove there the night before in the fog, we had not realized that the farm was literally in our yard; we had chickens, sheep and two donkeys in close proximity. The owners had said that it was fine to feed the chickens who would eat anything, so after breakfast we brought them the burnt toast ends and the kids had a wonderful time feeding them and petting the sheep, which had with four lambs. The hillsides all around here were covered with sheep and their babies; we saw thousands as we traveled, plus geese, rabbits, dozens of other birds and some horses, donkeys, cows and llamas. In some ways life in this area has not changed in hundreds of years.

We drove first to the Lake District visitor's center at Brockhole, where we went through the exhibits, walked out on a dock on Lake Windermere (and, as it happens, witnessed the last day of high-speed waterskiing on the lake, as a regulation was passed the next day banning it), watched an Easter Egg roll, let the kids play on the playground and ate a picnic lunch. Then we went to Wordsworth's Dove Cottage in Grasmere on the River Rothay, where we toured the museum and the cottage where William Wordsworth lived in his young married life. It had a number of wonderful paintings of the area by people associated with the Romantic poets and some of their artifacts, including some of Wordsworth's drafts and a painting of anarchist William Godwin - Mary Wollstonecraft's husband, Mary Shelley's father. The day had been cloudy with intermittent drizzle and some fog, and it was easy to look at the hillsides and see what the poets had seen in them. We walked into the town to St. Oswald's Church where Wordsworth is buried, for famous (and excellent) gingerbread baked in the building that was once his school. We had expected a lot to be closed for Easter, but several of the towns we drove through were having street fairs and most of the dining establishments seemed to be doing good business.

We drove up to the stone circle at Castlerigg in the mist at the top of a hill, a more scenic locale than the Rollright Stones with taller and wider stones that look more like the ones at Avebury. I would have liked to stay longer, as we had the place all to ourselves and I got the same kind of chills from it as I did at Avebury and Stonehenge, but the kids were cold in the rain and I managed to slip on the hillside and slide flat on my back until I was covered in mud. We stopped on the way back to the cottage at two decaying castles, Brougham and Brough, with impressive ruins, before coming back for a late dinner and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves which happened to be lying around on video and which the kids requested that we watch; how appropriate to find a film about the Midlands.

Click here for Lake District photos.

Monday I met my friend Heather at Rievaulx Abbey - a place I heard of first because of photos of the ruined abbey that she had posted on her web page. Dating from the 1100s, the place is soaring and magnificent, better preserved and grander in scale than the Glastonbury Abbey ruins which we saw on our last trip to England and which reputedly date to the seventh century. To get to Rievaulx Abbey, one must drive almost straight down a hill in the moors, past what's left of Helmsley Castle, much of whose stone was taken by locals to build houses after a siege during the Civil War. It is really hard to articulate the grandeur of this abbey, which we saw overcast and with relatively little blooming on this early spring day; I would love to see it in all the seasons. It was also great fun finally to meet Heather, who has been there many times and gave us a guided tour.

Click here for Rievaulx Abbey photos.

From Rievaulx we drove to Castle Howard, the great Baroque mansion and estate that was the setting for Brideshead Revisited. It was not originally on our schedule - we were going to drive to the sea at Whitby that afternoon - but everyone who had ever been there insisted that we needed to go to Castle Howard, and they were absolutely right. Leeds Castle in the south (which we visited last trip) bills itself as the most beautiful castle in Britain, and as fortress-style fairytale castles go, its moat and gardens are glorious, but Castle Howard (which is much newer, dating from about 1700) has a fantastic collection of furniture and art, original wallpapers by William Morris, and a chapel that is worth the price of admission with stained glass windows by Burne-Jones and gorgeous painted ceilings and walls.

The grounds are spectacular too, with flowers, fountains and sculpture near the castle and a lake a bit further on. Adam had wanted to return to Leeds Castle to see the peacocks and was pleased to find four walking around the courtyard. The Temple of the Four Winds, mausoleum and obelisk are lovely too, and there is a big playground on the lake that the kids loved and got very muddy in. They also saw the Easter Bunny, who was giving out Cadbury Eggs and riding the shuttle bus between the castle and gardens. And there was a new exhibit on the women of Castle Howard, particularly the ninth Countess, Rosalind, who was very friendly with several of the Pre-Raphaelites, traveled extensively in between having her eleven children, worked for women's suffrage and starred in naughty comics drawn by her husband and sent to her as keepsakes.

Click here for Castle Howard photos.

We were all pretty tired from a long day the day before and needed to stop to buy food on the way back, so we returned relatively early and watched Billy Elliot on the BBC (a neat movie to watch with my kids, despite a lot of cursing, as the story is about a father coming to terms with his son's desire to study ballet rather than boxing in the midst of a miner's strike in a Northern town where there aren't many options for children with unconventional interests). The news is very different in England than the US, interrupting movies rather than waiting for them to end, though the five minutes on the Indonesian earthquake and ten on a Parliamentary scandal sounded about par.

Tuesday we drove into the magnificent walled city of York to find both Heather and Emily - a friend I met on the internet when I was running KMAS, and did not know at the time was only thirteen, but who is now ten years older and a graduate student studying English literature in England. We met up at Clifford's Tower, built by Henry III after the original was burned during riots in 1190 when the Jews who had taken refuge in the tower committed suicide rather than being taken alive by an anti-Semitic mob. The views from the tower are amazing, but knowing this history, it was hard not to feel ambivalent about the tower itself and about York Minster, the spectacular medieval cathedral with the most beautiful, stories-high stained glass I have ever seen, and with huge Gothic western towers that are seen most impressively from the city walls, though there's no clear view for a photograph without trees or roofs in the line of sight. Many people had said that we should walk around the city walls, which we did in places, with Heather and Emily pointing out the architecture and important buildings.

We had planned to eat lunch at the pub above the ruins of a Roman bath, but after touring the museum below the ground with the artifacts from the baths themselves, we ended up eating in the Italian restaurant in the renovated Assembly Rooms, where we had pizza and pasta amidst gilded marble columns. From there we walked to the Yorkshire Museum, which has a collection of Anglo-Saxon, Roman and Viking artifacts from the area, plus part of the ruins of St. Mary's Abbey whose larger structures remain standing outside, by the River Ouse. We had tea and scones (well, some of us had scones and some of us had ice cream sundaes) at Bailey's, then walked to the National Railway Museum underneath the tracks by the York station. This place is fabulous - in what little time we had, we saw the Mallard which once set a world record for steam speed (and was the basis for the Thomas the Tank Engine train that Daniel called "tipped blue diesel" in his extreme youth), a big green train on the roundabout, mail and military cars, and - most importantly to the kids, who have outgrown Thomas - a sign for Harry Potter's Platform 9 3/4 in a huge warehouse of train memorabilia.

Heather and Emily had both departed earlier and we wove our way back across the city to where we had parked, stopping at the World War I memorial obelisk, different spots along the walls and bridges and a quick look at the amusement park adjacent to our parking spot near Clifford's Tower. Once again, though it was overcast for most of the day, we saw no rain. Because we had had a big lunch and afternoon tea, we came back to the cottage and made sandwiches for a late dinner. We caught most of Tom Stoppard's Enigma on a BBC channel's late movie schedule and liked it a lot.

Click here for York photos.

Wednesday we went as far east as any of us have ever been - to Whitby and Scarborough on the North Sea. First we stopped at Goathland Station on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, which stands in for Hogsmeade Station in the Harry Potter movies, beside a waterfall and adjacent to a pretty town at the top of a hill where sheep freely wander across the road. Then we drove on to Whitby, home of both Captain Cook and Dracula - which makes the fishing harbor, ruined abbey and cobblestone streets a pilgrimage site for fans of tall ships and vampires alike. There were an amusing number of Goth-dressed young women and New Age stores alongside the ships-in-a-bottle and chocolate shops. The Endeavour replica was not in port as it is sailing in the Pacific, but we saw the Grand Turk - a replica of an 18th century man-of-war that starred in the Hornblower TV movies.

We had lunch at one of the numerous local fish-and-chips places (inexpensive and yummy), then walked down to the beach and tidepools, where I had heard that it was easy to find fossils among the rocks at low tide. After spotting people with hammers cracking the rocks open to look for impressions, our kids started smacking the softer rocks against harder stones and discovered a few themselves, to their great delight. From the beach path we walked up the 199 steps to St Mary's Graveyard, made famous in Dracula, Whitby Abbey, where Celtic and Roman Christianity came together and where, in addition to stunning ruins and views of the town and sea, there is a nice museum with activities for kids. The remaining walls reminded me of York Minster - designed to hold enormous stained glass windows, but now only the stones remain.

Click here for Whitby photos.

We had hoped to stop at Robin Hood's Bay along the coast, a town where nearly all the houses have hiding places for contraband in the cellar and where goods were at one point smuggled from window to window of the close-packed buildings, but it was getting late by the time we left Whitby and we went directly to Scarborough to make sure we could get in to see the castle before it closed for the day. The keep, built in the 1100s, was besieged and badly damaged during the Civil War in 1645, but there are still enormous structures and the ditches dug for defense have been maintained, as have the walls around what's left of King John's quarters and the chapel. It was quite chilly and windy on the hill overlooking the sea, and there were hundreds of seagulls sitting on the castle ruins, the walls and the grass; I don't think I took a photo that didn't have a seagull in it. In the town we also saw Anne Bronte's grave at St. Mary's Church and we looked for the museum with the history of Scarborough Fair, but after getting lost in several traffic circles, we gave up before it got too dark and foggy to drive back to the cottage for dinner. Die Hard was ITV's late movie and we ended up watching it, for the Alan Rickman factor more than anything.

Click here for Scarborough and Goathland photos.

We had a very full day Thursday starting at Fountains Abbey, whose enormous tower is more intact than any of the buildings at Rievaulx, Whitby or St. Mary's and which is set in a gorgeous valley on the Skell River amidst the woods and adjacent to water gardens. The abbey was Cistercian - founded by monks influenced by what they perceived as the lax living at St. Mary's heading for Rievaulx, which was in turn founded by monks from Whitby - and its aesthetics were more austere, but because of the good condition of the stones there are actually more intact angels and figures in the architecture. The quarters and infirmary of the lay brothers is almost completely in ruins, but the monks' quarters and larger structures remain standing.

Click here for Fountains Abbey photos.

After eating lunch at the abbey we headed to Hartlepool, which has England's equivalent of our Mystic Seaport - a reproduction of a historic quay and the refitted HMS Trincomalee, built in 1817 and restored with nearly 20 percent of her original timbers. We did not take the lengthy audio tour but had a knowledgeable (and cute) guide, an O'Brian fan, who chatted with me about Jack Aubrey but had nothing good to say about the USS Constitution, which he claims cheated in the battle with the Java. A publisher was doing a shoot for a book cover in the great cabin, so there was a model in a captain's costume there as well. The quay features recreations of Trafalgar-era stores, including a chandler, a nautical instruments shop and a nobleman's rooms, plus a number of exhibits on everything from press gangs to fighting ships to prisons. The sun had come out by the time we arrived there and the light on the water was beautiful beyond the old town.

Click here for Hartlepool photos.

I could have spent all day in Hartlepool but we wanted to see Durham Cathedral, so even though we knew we would arrive too late to tour the castle, we left to go to Durham. Leaving the car park and crossing the footbridge over the river was like stepping back several centuries; we ended up on the grounds of the University of Durham, many of whose buildings are former civic and church structures from the 1600s, and the streets are cobblestone. Nonetheless the cathedral felt more alive than any other we've visited, though it dates from before 1100; some of the damaged ancient stained glass has been replaced with more modern designs, and the tomb of St. Cuthbert, which has made Durham Cathedral a pilgrimage site for nearly a thousand years, has a beautiful modern screen painted with Cuthbert's image over it. This cathedral is also where the bones of the Venerable Bede rest, and John Washington, an ancestor of George Washington, served as prior of the church for thirty years, as a plaque in the cloisters attests.

Click here for Durham photos.

My online friend Kim and I had discovered a few days earlier that we were staying only a few minutes away from where she lives in a beautiful town of which her husband is the vicar. She had told us that there was a public swimming pool near the town, so we met up with her and three of her four children at the pool, where the kids got along famously and Daniel became something of a local celebrity as an American visiting the area. She invited us back to her house for dinner, and the kids were highly entertained with their backyard trampoline, Playstation and hide-and-seek while we chatted with Kim and Alec in the vicarage. They are utterly lovely people and have friends in New Jersey so we are hoping to be able to see them in the US at some point! By the time we got back to the cottage it was well after 10 and we had to throw the kids into bed.

Friday we started out in England in Carlisle, the Celtic settlement that became a Roman town, then Saxon, then part of Norman Britain, holding off invaders from the north. Mary Queen of Scots was held in a tower in Carlisle Castle, which was also taken by Bonnie Prince Charlie's troops, as we learned when we toured it (and after seeing the dungeons and imagining the conditions with dozens of people packed down there, I have great admiration for the courage of anyone who chose to be political rather than staying out of it!) There are excellent displays in the Keep of the history of the city and the castle, with great views from the battlements of the rooftops, the cathedral and the remaining cannons at the castle which was the last defensive outpost when there was trouble with Scotland. It felt a little strange being in so many formerly Catholic cathedrals and abbeys during the last days of the Pope's life.

Click here for Carlisle and Gretna Green photos.

We drove across the Scottish border to Gretna Green, where we ate lunch and took photos in a touristy historic blacksmith's shop that's a popular place for weddings, as England had a higher age of consent and people used to sneak across the border to elope (I've been told that Gretna Green figures in countless British romance novels). We also discovered a Cadbury factory outlet there. After the chocolate, we crossed the English border and tried to visit St. Martin's Pre-Raphaelite Church in Brampton where Edward Burne-Jones designed the windows, but it was closed. From there we went to several Roman sites along Hadrian's Wall, including the fort at Housesteads where sheep were wandering among the ruins, the Mithraic temple at Carrawburgh sunk in the mud, and the museum and bath house ruins at Chesters which descend a hill toward the beautiful North Tyne River. There are wonderful intact stone carvings of gods and animals at Chesters, while Housesteads sits high on the moors and the sun broke through the mist to create absolutely amazing views.

Click here for Hadrian's Wall photos.

We drove back to the cottage by way of Raby Castle and Barnard Castle, where we stopped to take pictures (and to pick up groceries for dinner in the town of Barnard Castle, which has a 12th century church, a museum in a French-style chateau and a circular butter market which was once used as a prison). Barnard Castle itself is quite decayed, while Raby Castle is still inhabited by the family that took it over in the 1600s, and there are lovely grounds where we saw several pheasants during our very brief stop. We came back to Dove Cottage relatively early to pack, so we could get a very early start the next day, and the kids watched The Living Daylights (their first Dalton Bond film, I believe) in between baths and bedtime.

Click here for Barningham photos.

Our original plan for Saturday was to spend lunchtime in Nottingham, visiting the castle and driving by the new ice rink that's on the site of the one where Torvill and Dean trained - a place I've wanted to visit since I was in high school. But we turned onto the wrong road on the way down and ended up at the Sherwood Forest visitor's center, which seemed like a must-see as we are all Robin Hood fans, and which had big old oaks and archery demonstrations and explanations of the relationship between Robin of the Woods and the Green Man, so we spent some time there. When we arrived in Nottingham near lunchtime, it was very crowded and the parking lots were like a maze. Nottingham is what I expected Birmingham to be like - crowded, neither antique nor freshly contemporary, though it has a very diverse population from what I could see - everyone was converging on the shopping centers which are in the same part of town as the castle and museums. Having concluded that we could lose half the day just finding our way to the castle (we'd given up on the ice rink already), we decided to leave so we could make sure to get to Avebury and Stonehenge before the latter closed in the evening.

Click here for Sherwood Forest and Avebury photos.

It was a gorgeous near-70 degree day in Wiltshire, just like the last time we visited, and both places were exactly as I remembered them - despite being warm in the perfect weather I had chills nearly the entire time. We got ice cream from a truck and walked around the stone circle of Avebury eating it - is there anything better than mint chip in a place of that kind of power? Then we went to Stonehenge, arriving around 5 p.m. when the sun was visibly descending but still very bright, surrounded by sheep and burial mounds in the nearby hills, with ravens and other birds flying over and around the stones. The audio tour there is superb, but after awhile I shut mine off and just sat and looked; this is one of those places to which descriptions and photographs can't begin to do justice. I never believed that people could sense magnetism in the earth until the first time I visited it.

Click here for Stonehenge photos.

And then we drove to Portsmouth, to our hotel down by the water (though Adam actually cried at bedtime as he missed the cottage and the animals!) Paul took the kids swimming before our very late dinner but I had to walk down to the waterside, and to my delight there was a statue of Nelson in the park between the hotel and the quay, which follows the route of Nelson's last walk on land down what is now Pembroke Street. I watched the gorgeous sunset before returning so we could all have dinner and get to bed early. Sunday we got up, ate the hotel's huge buffet breakfast and headed to the Porstmouth Historic Dockyard, surrounded by old pubs named after ships and people connected with Nelson. We went first to the world's first iron-clad battleship, HMS Warrior, an 1860 fully rigged sailing ship that also traveled under steam power - whose wood had once been considered in condition too poor to be worth anything if the ship was broken up - now completely restored at Hartlepool, one of the most impressive ships I have ever toured. Adam got to climb into one of the hammocks and carry one of the horns, though he was most intrigued by the cat-o-nine-tails hanging on the orlop deck.

Then we went to the magnificent HMS Victory, the oldest warship not afloat (the USS Constitution being the oldest still in the water). The ship has two great cabins, the Admiral's Cabin which was Nelson's and the upper Captain's Cabin which was Hardy's, and there are three gun decks with nearly all of the 110 guns in place, plus a restored gunroom, magazine, numerous crew quarters, galley, etc. But the most moving spots on the ship are two small plaques: "Here Nelson Fell" on the quarterdeck, and "Here Nelson Died" below in the orlop beside a painting of the scene. Trafalgar anniversary displays were in place all over the dockyards and at the Royal Naval Museum (which had Geoff Hunt's paintings created for the O'Brian book covers hanging near the entrance), and we all learned a great deal about Nelson though we'd known a reasonable amount when we arrived. Adam was particularly amused by a feature showing clips from three films about Nelson, including a horrible 1918 silent where the actor's reaction to being shot was utterly comical; he proceeded to reenact the scene in which Nelson fell all afternoon. (There was no "Kiss me Hardy" in the silent film as there was in the Olivier film, and there was surprising explicitness about his affair with Emma Hamilton.)

Click here for Portsmouth Historic Dockyard photos.

We went through at least a dozen other exhibits, including an absolutely superb interactive walk-through recreation of the battle of Trafalgar, a display of one of Victory's sails in a climate-controlled room where video clips of Master and Commander were being shown, and a series of activities for kids from tying knots to computerized "command" of the ship (we had a mutiny for not bringing enough rum on ours - silly us, we thought lime juice was equally important). We also saw the Mary Rose, Henry VIII's favorite ship, which went down in the 1500s and was brought up a few years ago, making her the only 16th century warship on display anywhere in the world. The Tudor vessel is currently being displayed inside a giant tank and sprayed with protective chemicals until the wood is strong enough to withstand air, and there is also a museum of artifacts connected with the ship, along with a film about how she was salvaged. There's enough to see in the historic dockyards for a week-long trip, though we left at five-thirty when the various museums and ships began to close for the evening.

While Paul took the kids for a swim at the hotel, I walked down the Southsea waterfront to Clarence Pier and the shore, where I wandered into the surf and watched ferries head toward the Isle of Wight. Then I went back to get the family and we all walked through the park with the Nelson statue, down the beach and over to the amusement park, which could have been any seaside town I've visited from Ocean City to Santa Monica. After collecting some shells, we ate, watched teenagers on the roller coasters and played miniature golf. Eventually it got dark and chilly and we wandered back through the park away from the waterfront. It was a very nice ending to a nearly perfect day, marred only by my inability to see my friend Emma who was having car trouble and couldn't come to Portsmouth.

Click here for Portsmouth and Southsea photos.

Monday we got up early so that we could go to Portchester and its castle, with the best-preserved Roman wall in northern Europe and a huge intact keep with paintings on the walls from when the upstairs was used as a theatre. Richard II had rooms added on, Henry V used it as a base of operations and Elizabeth I made the last official royal visit there. From the roof of the keep one can see Victory docked in Portsmouth and a lovely view of the surrounding water, even on a misty morning like this one. Adam found a bird's nest in one corner complete with mother and eggs, and we were all intrigued by the 17th and 18th century graffiti carved into the upper walls of the spiral staircase.

Click here for Portchester photos.

It had cleared up by the time we left for Heathrow, looking out the car window at spring flowers and the fewer sheep in the fields of Surrey than those of Yorkshire. We had an easy flight home; I watched National Treasure and Being Julia, two excellent films for leaving England as one has to do with the American Founding Fathers and has a British bad guy (Sean Bean, no less!) while the other is set in London and is about shenanigans on and off the English stage earlier this century. We had forgotten all the CDs to which we intended to listen while we were in England and had been stuck with freebies from the Daily Express, and I found it ironic that United Airlines was playing Loreena McKennitt, one of the main CDs I missed, as we took off. Once again it was cloudy as we passed over Ireland, but we had a clear view of the glaciers in northeastern Canada and a lovely sunset landing at Dulles after seeing the monuments just before landing.

Click here for photos from the plane.

We were not allowed to take photos inside Westminster Abbey, Her Majesty's Theatre, the Maritime Museum, the galleries at the Birmingham Museum, Wordsworth's Dove Cottage, Castle Howard or Durham Cathedral, and we were not allowed to use flash in the Nelson Gallery at the Royal Naval Museum nor at the Mary Rose Museum, so there are some gaps and some slightly blurry images.