Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Day Trip from London

Have you ever visited some place that everyone seemed to rave about, but once you saw it, you didn’t get it?

That was me on a recent cycling-train adventure to the southeast coastline of Kent. The day was supposed to be sunny, but since this is England, dark, rain clouds filled the sky once I arrived in Margate, about 2 hours southeast from London Victoria. I had packed my Turkish beach towel, camera and book, but not an umbrella. Silly me!
The seaside town of Margate has been called “Shoreditch-on-Sea” and “Mar-Great” by London media because of the influx of creative types from London, so it sounded like a cool place to visit. But as I tried to cycle past the shuffling tourists on the faded promenade, I saw two cows and the Hare Krishna clanging bells. I thought, WTF?
Then, there were all the old amusement park rides and tacky arcade games with garish lights that seem to feature in other downtrodden seaside towns like Southend-on-Sea and Herne Bay that I’ve visited. Maybe it’s something you grow up with if you’re English, but I don’t get it. Is it part nostalgia?

Coffee and Art in Margate
Well, I wandered past the pastel-colored buildings and Margate Main Sands (the town’s sandy beach) and headed to Mala Kaffe at the end of the pier. I ordered a lovely flat white and sat inside at the small bar, avoiding the fine mist outside.
It was low tide during my visit and a not so nice odor wafting off the seabed outside. I wrinkled my nose as I cycled past and decided to pop into the Turner Contemporary Gallery. I had a quick mosey past some bizarre, modern art pieces and decided to find a place for lunch.
Outside the gallery is an Antony Gormley sculpture, which has been placed on the chalk bed in the sea and can be seen from the gallery windows.

Margate’s Old Town section seemed to have some interesting, refurbished shops and cafés that looked inviting. I stopped at the Old Town Deli as it was advertising homemade food and local Kent produce. I had a delicious salami sandwich, a small salad and a half a pint of Kentish cider. (Can you see a theme to my day trips from London?) This part of town looks like it could be explored more, but I was interested in cycling onto the next beaches.
Near the Old Town in Margate, the Tudor House, dating from the 1500s, is a small museum with period costumes on display.

A Bounty of Beaches
Following Northdown Road and later a paved cycle path, I headed out of town about 3 miles and stopped at Botany Bay. This long stretch of sandy beach, surrounded by towering chalk cliffs, was quite nice, but the sea was filled with green seaweed. Yuck! On the positive side, the sun had returned which made the white cliffs look brilliant.
Just around the curving coast is Kingsgate Bay, home to some interesting features such as Neptune’s Tower, Kingsgate Bay Sea Arch and Kingsgate Castle. At first I thought, Neptune’s Tower was the remains of some king’s castle or fort, but it is a folly. Lord Holland, who built nearby Kingsgate Castle in 1760, also built the tower to resemble a fort designed during the reign of King Henry VIII. The nearby castle is perched up on the chalk clifftops and sits behind a tall, gated fence with a sign saying it is divided up into private residences now. Fancy that!

Here, I was content to sit on the beach for awhile and read my book. There was no way I was treading into that water unless I had some wellies on. I found the invasion of seaweed to be so strange because online photos of the area hadn’t depicted that feature.

Next stop on my cycling adventure was Stone Bay, a pretty, sandy beach that is lined with dozens of cute, rainbow-hued beach huts just like in Melbourne. The high chalk cliffs cast a shadow over part of the beach in the late afternoon. Now, this is a beach where I could see myself sunbathing!

Beautiful Broadstairs
Finally, I stopped in Broadstairs, which was a much more attractive town compared to Margate, just a couple miles away. The town stands on top of the cliff overlooking the golden arc of Viking Bay and its beach below. Broadstairs seemed to have prettier Victorian buildings, perhaps because of its connection to writer Charles Dickens, who stayed here at various hotels from 1837-1859.
After cycling in the midafternoon sun, I treated myself to a refreshing ice cream cone at Morelli’s, a 1950s, Italian ice-cream parlour that made me feel like I was back home in New York.
Even though there is a train station in Broadstairs, I had to cycle 4.2 miles back to Margate since I had bought a return ticket. The British National Rail system is quite frustrating because you can’t buy inexpensive single tickets. A return ticket always seems to be the cheapest way to go. So when I plan my cycling adventures, I always must pay attention to the return options as well as the train times.

I probably shouldn’t complain too much because if I were back in the United States, I wouldn’t be having these type of cycling adventures in the first place.
Of course, the sun was out once I returned to Margate late in the afternoon.

What is your favorite beach in the U.K.?

Note: If you are a more experienced cyclist, there is a wonderful route called the Viking Coastal Trail that covers 32 miles (51.4 km) along the coast from Margate to Broadstairs and Ramsgate.
Unfortunately, this map doesn't cover my entire cycling trip, but at least it gives you a rough idea of the return trek from Margate to Broadstairs.


Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Day Trip from London

Fairytale dreams of little girls often are filled with castles, but big girls like myself, also enjoy spending a real day at a castle too.

Did you know that England has more than 1,500 castle sites? I figured I would start by visiting the castles that are within an easy reach from London.

With work and weekend trips, I don’t get to update this blog like I used to when we first moved abroad in 2010. And even when I have a mid-weekday off, I often make the effort to take a day trip from London as well.

Exploring Hever Castle & Gardens
One destination that has been on my to-do list was the magnificent, moated Hever Castle, which is an easy day trip to do from London. I took a train from Clapham Junction, had a brief transfer at Oxted, then disembarked at Hever Station and cycled one mile up to the castle. (Trains also depart from London Victoria and London Bridge.) You easily could walk the mile along the country roads to the castle too.
Of course, you’ll pass a cozy-looking, half-timbered pub named after King Henry VIII.
Inside Hever Castle, I visited the rooms where Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII’s second wife, spent her youth, and where the King courted her as well. Anne Boleyn was the Queen of England for just 1,000 days, mother of Queen Elizabeth I and the woman who convinced Henry VIII to renounce Catholicism and create the Church of England so the pair could marry. 

The castle later passed ownership onto another of Henry VIII’s wives, Anne of Cleves, as part of their marriage annulment settlement. The rooms feature a mix of historical styles from the 15th century to the 20th century, from Tudor-era half-timbered walls and finely woven tapestries to a 100-year-old telephone and plush pink sofas.
 It is traditionally believed that Henry VIII stayed several times at Hever Castle. The ceiling here dates from 1462 and is the oldest in the castle.
Today, much of what you see in the castle is the restored efforts by William Waldorf Astor, the former New Yorker tycoon who moved to England in the 1890s and bought the run-down castle in 1903. He used his fortune to restore and extend the castle in the early 20th century, including a 100-room wing in the Tudor style. The Astor Suite is decorated in the 20th-century style and showcases pictures and memorabilia relating to the Astor family and the Edwardian period.
My only regret is visiting Hever Castle in August. It didn’t register with my brain that local children are still on summer break, so the castle was a popular destination for young families.

Gorgeous Italian Gardens
But outside the castle walls was the real highlight for me! Astor also spent his money and employed hundreds of staff to transform the castle’s small, modest garden to a gorgeous Italian Garden that would be at home at any Italian palazzo. Covering four acres, the garden features long sweeping lawns, marble columns lining the pergola walkway, blooming rose and perennial beds and marble sculptures, some 2,000 years old.
At the manmade lake end of the garden is the impressive Loggia, flanked by classical Roman sculptures inspired by the Trevi Fountain. Who needs to visit Rome when you have this?
Cycling to Chiddingstone
After spending several hours at Hever Castle, I finally cycled onto the small, nearby village of Chiddingstone, about 15-minutes away by bike, but on a much hillier route than I had anticipated. What’s interesting here is that the entire village, apart from the church and Chiddingstone Castle, is owned by the National Trust. Chiddingstone is described as being “the most perfect surviving example of a Tudor village in the county,” which seems relevant given its proximity to the Tudor-era Hever Castle.  

I stopped at the Castle Inn to have a classic pub lunch of a pint of Kentish cider and a cheeseburger with chips. I figured I had earned all those calories after cycling up those hills!
It’s worth having a wander around the village to admire the preserved half-timbered buildings, the 16th-century St. Mary the Virgin Church as well as the Chiddingstone Castle. The castle has Tudor origins, Victorian rooms and was remodeled in the 19th century to resemble a medieval castle. Astor also owned this castle at one point, but the last owner, art collector Denys Eyre Bower, bought it 1955 to house his extensive art collection. Today, the castle is open to the public on select days and would be the perfect backdrop for a romantic wedding.
Travelling by bike in the Kentish countryside meant I also got to see other Tudor-era houses and old brick hop houses which Kent is famous for. The cultivation of hops was imported from Flanders (present-day northern Belgium) to Kent and the surrounding counties as early as the 15th century and reached its heyday during the 17th-19th centuries. (You can read more about Britain’s history of hops here.)

Stay tuned for my next photography post from the Kent countryside!

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