Beautiful London.

Beautiful London (internet photo).

A co-worker asked me on the bus this morning what has been my favorite thing in London. I assumed he meant sites and experiences rather than the everyday fun stuff like black cabs, pubs and grocery delivery. I’m not really a morning person, so I mumbled something about the British Library since it was one of the most recent things I’d done, and it was clear in my memory. But it got me thinking, what really HAS been my favorite thing in London.

I think for my son, that’s an easy answer: Playing in the parks and playgrounds, and the seasonal kids’ fairs that pop up in them, the London zoo, the lions in Trafalgar Square, ice skating at the Natural History Museum, the Duck Tour and the Transport Museum. Some of the things I thought he’d enjoy like the castles and Natural History Museum, he’s just kind of run through without really paying attention. And he hates being forced to sit still in restaurants, although he’ll make an exception for the ice cream parlor at Fortnum & Mason. He likes the silly fountains at Granary Square.

I’ve enjoyed a lot of the off-the-beaten path or behind-the-scenes things, like tracking down random Bridget Jones movie filming locations and Roman ruins as well as more high profile stuff like tours of Parliament and Buckingham Palace, and daytrips to Highclere Castle and the Harry Potter studios.

I really liked the ice sculpture tent at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, the Wallace Collection, and the concrete Frost Fair murals in Southbank. The Foundling Museum was probably the most moving and emotional. But there’s honestly SO MUCH to see in London, how could I really narrow it down?

So my absolute favorite things have been more of the events and experiences than the sites…things like summer picnics in the parks, ladies’ nights out on the town, and having afternoon tea with friends and family. The American Thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s, the Christmas choir performance at Westminster Abbey, recording at Abbey Road with the Rock Choir (of course!!), planting memorial poppies at the Tower, catching the film stars on stage at London theatres, any event at the ambassador’s residence, and just how beautiful the city is from season to season. These are a few of my favorite things. ;)

Hampstead Heath is a large, ancient park that covers about 790 acres in north London. According to Wikipedia, it “first entered the history books in 986 when Ethelred the Unready granted one of his servants five hides of land at ‘Hemstede’.” It was later recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as being owned by Westminster Abbey, and then during Henry II’s reign it became privately owned by the king’s butler, Alexander de Barentyn. By the 1800s it had been sold off in pieces and was mostly common land eventually maintained by the city.

Some of the highlights of the park include three open-air public swimming pools, playgrounds, a physical training ground, and a stately home from the 1600s called Kenwood House. It’s quite hilly compared to Hyde Park in central London, and Parliament Hill is supposed to have one of the best views over the city. Although I didn’t think it was much different from the view from Primrose Hill in Regent’s Park.

Last Sunday was a gorgeous and warm sunny day with a cool breeze, so we popped over to check out the playground. Surprisingly our son only spent about 15 minutes there and then wanted to run up the hill and into the woods, which really does emphasize the fact that the kid doesn’t need more toys, he needs more nature! So I spent about three hours following him around while he climbed trees, rolled down hills, picked wildflowers, chased kites shaped like pterodactyls and was chased by enthusiastic dogs in return.

Somehow we managed to not get lost or fall into any of the large patches of stinging nettle, which were blooming with surprisingly delicate little blue flowers. But we did get sunburned, so I now have a lovely heat rash around my neck. But we also had ice cream, which makes everything better. So I guess summer has arrived!

Ice cream van in front of the playground.

Ice cream van in front of the playground.

Heading into the hills.

Heading into the hills.

The beautiful path to the top of Parliament Hill.

The beautiful path to the top of Parliament Hill.

Pterodactyl kite!

Pterodactyl kite!

The northeast side of Parliament Hill with a view toward St. Michael's church and Highgate Cemetery.

The northeast side of Parliament Hill with a view toward St. Michael’s church and Highgate Cemetery.

Some lovely tall grass.

Some lovely tall grass.

A patch of buttercups.

A patch of buttercups.

Stinging nettle in bloom.

Stinging nettle in bloom.

One of the bathing pools.

One of the bathing pools.

We always thought our son would enjoy a Duck Tour…especially since he’s such a Transformers fan…imagine something that has a vehicle mode and a boat mode! Probably the closest he’s going to get.

Last summer we’d thought about doing one but were slightly deterred by the headline about one catching on fire and all the passengers being forced to jump into the Thames. No, thanks!

This summer, we had some lovely ladies that we used to work with in the Antarctic visiting for a couple weeks. After one had moved on to her next travel adventure, we were trying to figure out what to do on the other’s last day that she hadn’t done before on previous visits to London and that our family could participate in. So we decided on a Duck Tour.

The pick-up point near the London Eye.

The pick-up point near the London Eye.

It was quite appropriate as well, since it was Victory in Europe weekend, and the Ducks had been used in France during WWI! According to the tour website, the Ducks (DUKW) played a vital role in World War II and were originally used to carry supplies from ships to points on land, negating the need for loading and unloading of smaller boats, which saved time and countless lives. More than 40% of all over-beach supplies in Normandy were transported by the Ducks during the first four months.

King George VI, accompanied by Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay and the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, touring the beaches at Normandy in a DUKW amphibious vehicle, 16 June 1944. (Wikipedia)

King George VI, accompanied by Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay and the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, touring the beaches at Normandy in a DUKW amphibious vehicle, 16 June 1944. (Wikipedia)

The land portion was better than I expected as they covered a bit of off-the-beaten-path info rather than the usual tourist banter over the major sites. The whole thing lasted about 75 minutes, and we probably spent 1/3 of that in the water at least. We cruised into the Thames near Vauxhall Bridge and motored down to the Houses of Parliament before turning around and puttering slowly back up.

Heading toward the Thames near Vauxhall Bridge.

Heading toward the Thames near Vauxhall Bridge.

Boat mode!

Boat mode!

A lovely view of Parliament.

A lovely view of Parliament.

Me and our son checking out the view. It was a bit windy, so we kept the plastic tarp rolled down.

Me and A checking out the view. It was a bit windy, so we kept the plastic tarp rolled down.

A fellow Duck on the water.

A fellow Duck on the water.

I think the only thing that was disconcerting was how close the water came to the bottom of the windows after being 10 feet in the air while driving around on land. But our son loved it! And it was definitely a first for the rest of us as well.

The first weekend of this month was my husband and my seventh wedding anniversary. This one, like no other one before it, has just blown my mind at how quickly the time has passed. SEVEN years. Unbelievable.

Last year, we tried to do something really fancy as it was our first year in London. So we got a sitter, had lunch at the Ritz, went to a theatre show and then had a couple’s massage at a little day spa in Mayfair. So it was definitely fancy! And the show and the massage were awesome. But I kind of felt like the lunch at the Ritz was a total waste of entirely too much money that we should’ve spent on their famous afternoon tea instead.

This year a few things seemed to coalesce at once to form a plan. 1. We thought we’d do something a little more down to earth and include our son. 2. Living Social had a fabulous discount on a hotel in the royal Forest of Dean that used to be a 17th-century hunting lodge. 3. Puzzlewood Forest is in the Forest of Dean and on my bucket list. 4. Early May is when the bluebells come out, and one of the best places to see them is supposed to be the Forest of Dean. So off we went to the Speech House Hotel.

Speech House Hotel built in the 1600s as a hunting lodge in the royal forest.

Speech House Hotel built in the 1600s as a hunting lodge in the royal forest.

The fire place in the lobby.

The fireplace in the lobby.

Butcher's "faggots" with peas and mash.

Butcher’s “faggots” with peas and mash.

"The Cathedral" on the Sculpture Trail in the Forest of Dean.

“The Cathedral” on the Sculpture Trail in the Forest of Dean.

Another fun sculpture.

Another fun sculpture.

In retrospect, it didn’t turn out to be the most relaxing anniversary as it was a bank holiday weekend, and the traffic was terrible. It took us an hour just to get through Oxford. So a 2.5-hour drive turned into 4 hours. Our GPS was a little spotty in the woods, so my hubby got a little stressed out driving around. And we never did find the location of the carpet of bluebells that I’d seen photos of, so that was a little disappointing. During our first meal in the hotel, I found a DEAD SPIDER floating in my red wine glass…after I’d already finished half of it. UGH, disgusting. So from then on, I only purchased full bottles of (white) wine and removed the cap myself. A simple solution. ;)

But the hotel itself was really cool with great historic touches. And the family room they put us in had four beds and was plenty spacious. I also got to try a new item of crazy British local food called butchers “faggots”…yep, that’s their real name…and they are traditionally made from pig’s heart, liver and fatty belly meat or bacon minced together, with herbs and bread crumbs. Basically it tasted like meatloaf with liver in it.

And we did get a chance to wander around in the woods and follow a “sculpture trail” with some neat art on it. After that we made it to the ancient Puzzlewood Forest and had a great time exploring the trails. Where the Forest of Dean is huge, incorporates a few towns and covers 42 square miles, Puzzlewood is quite small and only covers about 14 acres. But it had great atmosphere and a series of twisty Tolkien-esque trails that had been laid out in the early 1800s that wound all through it. And I even got to see a few bluebells.

Next year, we’ll be in Iceland. So we might try to find something between overpriced-fancy and spiders-in-the-wine. Happy anniversary, baby!

Easy to see why Tolkien would've loved Puzzlewood.

Easy to see why Tolkien would’ve loved Puzzlewood.

One of the many trails.

One of the many trails…reminded me a bit of the northwestern U.S.

Part of the trail made with tree rounds.

Part of the trail made with tree rounds.

One of the many staircases up and down the little hills.

One of the many staircases up and down the little hills.

And a few bluebells. :)

And a few bluebells. :)

As you can imagine, we’re trying to make the most of our weekends since we only have TEN left. Last Friday we had two lovely ladies arrive for a visit that we used to work with in the Antarctic. So we got out on Saturday and knocked the British Library and Lindisfarne Gospels off my bucket list. Sadly, I was a bit disappointed with the gospels, as they were open to an unilluminated page. What’s the point of that??

But there were a lot of other amazing things there, like a Gutenberg Bible, William Tyndale’s 1534 English translation of the New Testament that was the personal copy of Anne Boleyn, original sketches by da Vinci, manuscripts from Shakespeare and Jane Austen, sheet music by Handel, a fair share of other illuminated manuscripts, and last, but not least, one of Robert Scott’s Antarctic journals. Always a hit with the Antarctic crowd. :)

We also added a couple pubs to my collection, and had a lovely (and inexpensive at £25 for two!!) afternoon tea at the Hilton near Euston Station. They have a lovely Victorian conservatory…that heats up quite a bit when the sun’s out.

The Victorian conservatory at the Hilton Euston.

The Victorian conservatory at the Hilton Euston.

Yummy desserts on the tea tray.

Yummy desserts on the tea tray.

On Sunday, we talked the ladies into joining us on a family outing to Dover Castle for St. George’s Day! Our English Heritage memberships were still active, so we got to waive the £18 entry fee, yay! Unfortunately it was cold and windy and wet, and we’d underdressed because it had been practically toasty in London the day before. So we were a bit cranky by the end.

Our son checking out the village.

Our son with St. George’s flag checking out the village.

Some skins and chainmail.

Some skins and chainmail.

Kitchen.

Examples of medieval ingredients.

But we accomplished our mission. We got to see Dover Castle, check out the Roman Lighthouse, get a glimpse of the White Cliffs, and most importantly…watch St. George battle the dragon!!

The dragon waiting for his cue.

The dragon waiting for his cue. Love the costume!

Dragon menacing the villagers.

Dragon menacing the local villagers.

The battle!

The battle! There was a horse involved earlier, but the grass was too wet and slippery. 

The dragon loses the battle and all confidence...until he is  a shell of his former self.  ;)

The dragon loses the battle and all confidence…until he is a shell of his former self. ;)

 

So, technically, Icelandic should be easy for me...right?

So, technically, Icelandic should be easy for me…right?

April is almost over, so I wanted to make sure I got this post in while it was still somewhat relevant. Last year we didn’t get a chance to participate in the embassy Easter party for the kids as we were in Amsterdam at the time. This year we managed to visit the St. John’s Wood Easter Fayre, have a fun egg hunt organized by some embassy people in the communal garden in front of our apartment building, AND make it to the official embassy Easter Egg Hunt with an official costumed Easter Bunny. So I think we can safely now check off Easter in London.

We also had some Foreign Service friends visiting from Prague. So we got to spend some quality time with them, hit a pub and squeeze in a lovely afternoon tea for the girls. I’m afraid I’m turning into a bit of a snob when it comes to afternoon tea. So many places serve the same sandwiches: cucumber, egg and cress, smoked salmon, and roast beef. I don’t mind the last two, but the first two are getting really old and boring for the price. So I’m starting to chase places with an exciting sandwich menu.

And we nailed it with the Marie Antoinette Afternoon Tea at the Belgraves Hotel in Knightsbridge. We were a bit late as Google maps pegged it about a block from where it actually was. But the restaurant was lovely and we had a fun little booth with a massive colorful pink tea presentation with a fantastic variety of sweet and savory treats. We even received “champagne flavor pearls” as a take-home gift. It was quite a bit more expensive than your average tea. But it sure made for a nice change.

The list of items on the tea tray.

The list of items on the tea tray.

Our champagne flavor pearls.

Our champagne flavor pearls.

The fantastically colorful Marie Antoinette Afternoon Tea.

The fantastically colorful Marie Antoinette Afternoon Tea.

A few days later I got to meet up with another friend that I’d gone to college with in France who hadn’t been able to make it down to Spain for the Girls’ Weekend. So it was great to see her again after so many years and to meet her really cool 8-year-old daughter who spent one evening playing video games with my husband. :)

But before that, I spent the morning with them seeing a few sites around London, and we started our day off right with chocolate crepes. Then they came over to our place in the evening for the above video games, pizza and great catching up. I even got to dig out the photo album from our time in France, which I hadn’t dragged down to Spain. So even though Amsterdam was a lot of fun last year. This year, it was nice to be surrounded by friends.

Our morning seeing the sites.

Our morning seeing the sites.

Ha! I came across this on Facebook the other day. Hopefully the author will forgive me if I leave it unattributed to protect her privacy. We pack out at the end of June. So I think I can safely say I’m approaching Stage 2.

Stage 1 Denial: We’ve got 7 months until packout. TRA LA LA LA.

Stage 2 Anger: We are never buying anything ever again. Do you REALLY need to keep those socks from 9th grade?! They are missing three toes!

Stage 3 Bargaining: Okay, if you haul all the consummables crap from the car, I will go through and sort the clothes to get rid of. Please, not another Costco trip, please. Dear God, I beg of you. We don’t need shampoo! Who uses shampoo these days, I mean, really? We can just go au natural.

Stage 4 Depression: The movers are coming tomorrow and our UAB and HHE is still not fully sorted. Pretty sure we just guaranteed ourselves a miserable life.

Stage 5 Acceptance: The movers are here. There is nothing else we can do, time has run out. Bring the wine and anchor down beside me on the couch. We might never see all this crap again, but really, who cares? Mmm…wine.

Wikipedia.

Wikipedia photo.

That’s right, people! Season six is coming up, and everyone that follows the show has probably heard that it’s going to be the final season. Sadly, we won’t be here when it airs. But it’s been fun being a few months ahead of the folks in the States for spoilers. ;) But while we were here, we couldn’t miss the chance to see the location in person. So we threw an extra day onto our holiday weekend and went to Highclere Castle last Thursday.

Since it’s still a family residence and also an active filming location, it’s only open at certain times throughout the year…two weeks at the end of March (and beginning of April), six days in May, and then for two months between July and September (closed Friday and Saturdays). They usually have two sessions that you can sign up for: a morning and an afternoon.

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Approach from the main gate.

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Me in front of Downton Abbey!

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Catering tents perhaps?

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A lovely view with daffodils.

We were able to get tickets directly from the castle website to visit during their spring opening, which were about £20 each for access to the house, the gardens and the Egyptian exhibit. The site currently says they’re sold out for the rest of 2015 (glad we got in when we did!!). But you can also book through various tour operators like Viator that include transportation from London and trips to other Downton Abbey filming locations nearby. So they might have a certain amount set aside for them.

The house itself was absolutely gorgeous, of course, although slightly smaller than it seems on screen. But the things you can’t see on TV are the amazing amount of detail in the rooms (the gothic main hall is phenomenal) and all the family photos and memorabilia scattered throughout the house. They even had specific rooms labeled if they were used in the show, which was a lot of fun to see.

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The library (internet photo).

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The state dining room (internet photo).

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The amazing Gothic main hall (internet photo).

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The drawing room (internet photo).

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Cora’s bedroom (internet photo).

And the grounds are stunning. If I had to do it again, I’d probably go during the summer so we could see the gardens in full bloom. But we did get to see some sweet lambs in the pastures along the roads. They also had some fun architectural elements throughout the 1,100-acre park that is their back yard, like a bust of Charlemagne, the Temple of Diana, and the Jackdaw’s Castle, which is an 18th century folly built purely to look pretty from the castle.

I would not, however, recommend the Egyptian exhibit to anyone who’s claustrophobic. The collection is interesting as it was all brought back by the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who famously discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922. Kind of major. ;) But where the house has nice high ceilings in all the rooms, the exhibit is in a little rabbit warren of basement rooms with unnaturally low ceilings. These were also quite crowded with other people. So I spent about 20 seconds looking at the first few items and then promptly shoved my way back outside before I freaked out.

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Picnic lunch.

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The Jackdaw’s Castle.

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Spring lambs!

Once recovered from that, they have a nice little gift shop to distract you and a couple cafes. We picked up some sandwiches and a tiny split of champagne and enjoyed our “picnic” on one of the plastic tables scattered around near the stables, complete with horses in them.

We’d left our son at nursery school that day. So it was a blissfully relaxed self-guided tour with my hubby, with lovely long walks throughout the grounds, and the return traffic wasn’t even too stressful. It’s only about an hour and a half west of central London. So if you get the chance, I would highly recommend it!!!

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