No Stone Left Unturned; Two Mums with Two Weeks to Visit Castles of England

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 3, 2006 | Go to article overview

No Stone Left Unturned; Two Mums with Two Weeks to Visit Castles of England


Byline: Joel Berliner, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

LONDON - The lore of England is rich with kings and queens and castles. Henry V, Richard the Lion-Hearted, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and George III all walked the realm like giants, with deeds and lives that shaped their times and ours. We think of England, and we think of its castles; we are fortunate that many of these great icons of English history survive.

My wife, Alison, and I took our mothers on a two-week tour of England. Our goal was to view the castles and find the ancestral villages from which both women could trace their roots. We called it the Mums Tour.

My mother, Bernice, and my wife's mother, Helen, are both in their 80s, very spry, very sharp and lots of fun. We flew into London's Heathrow Airport on Virgin Atlantic Airlines, a delight even in coach. If you are flying upper class, it is sumptuous. We rented a medium-size sporty five-speed manual-transmission car and set off.

A word about driving in England. Most Americans fear the prospect of confusion and collisions, but driving on the left - to us, "wrong" - side of the road is easy.

About 50 miles southeast of London, our first stop, Leeds Castle in Maidstone, Kent, is an immaculately restored example of what we envision as the classic castle. A favorite retreat of Henry VIII, it is situated on 500 acres and is built on two islands in the middle of a lake. Among its owners was Lord Fairfax, namesake of Fairfax County and mentor to young George Washington. Amazingly, it was a private home for much of the past 200 years. The last owner, Lady Baillie, is credited with the glorious restoration.

By midafternoon, we are off to Canterbury Cathedral, seat of the archbishop of Canterbury. Seeing the white-stone Gothic cathedral towering into the sky, one can only imagine how it would have affected the village peasant of 800 years ago. It was in this cathedral that Thomas a Becket, the archbishop, was murdered by four knights loyal to Henry II. We stand on the spot where Becket was killed, run through by swords. It is chilling. Go behind the altar and view the crypt containing the martyred Becket. It is a moment of the past brought to life.

We travel down the road to Dover. It is not hard to find the fabled white cliffs. They tower all along the coast, 1,000 feet of chalky white rock running north-south beside the English Channel. We wander to the main street and have a delightfully low-key dinner at Blake's, a fine, genteel establishment. We have - what else - Dover sole. It is delicious.

The next day, we head west along the coast and arrive in the early morning at the stellar ruin of Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. A boyhood fantasy of how a castle should look, Bodiam Castle is square, surrounded by a wide moat, and accessed by a single large drawbridge. Built in the 14th century, it is in ruin except for its imposing exterior walls and towers. Its four massive turrets rise from each corner like giant chess rooks; the grassy ruins of its interior seem to be the result of some cataclysmic decimation rather than centuries of neglect. There is a mythological air about the castle.

We continue into West Sussex to Arundel Castle, seat of the dukes of Norfolk for 850 years. Impeccable in its restoration, Arundel is still the home of the Howards, the duke's family name. The Howards were Catholics even in times when that was quite dangerous. The third duke of Norfolk was the uncle of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, two doomed wives of Henry VIII.

The fourth duke of Norfolk was beheaded for plotting to marry Mary Stuart - Mary Queen of Scots.

Arundel is remarkable for the grandeur of the castle interiors, the perfect symmetry and flow of its great rooms.

We next head north toward Salisbury. There, beside the highway to Bath, lies Stonehenge. This ancient monument, erected thousands of years ago by peoples who predated the Saxons, stands like an extraterrestrial beacon to antiquity. …

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No Stone Left Unturned; Two Mums with Two Weeks to Visit Castles of England
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