Posts Tagged ‘London Daytrips’

Cowley Manor, viewed from the garden

Because Jon has spent most of this summer training for his Channel swim (which he and his team completed in 12h 45 mins while also raising £13,000+ for charity – well done, no?), we haven’t taken any holiday yet this summer.

Channel swim over, he and I spent last weekend in the Cotswolds, where we treated ourselves to a stay at Cowley Manor. Longtime followers of this blog (hi, Mom and Dad!) will remember that last spring, Jon and I visited Barnsley House, which is a nearby competitor of Cowley Manor’s.  So the title of this post could really be “Face Off: Cowley Manor vs. Barnsley House,” except that I’m not that dramatic.

In case you find yourself in the enviable position of deciding which luxury spa hotel to choose for your next trip to the Cotswolds, here are my thoughts on the two, with the caveat that it’s been over a year since I was at Barnsley House:

"good" room at the Cowley Manor

Jon and I chose a “good room” for £250/night, which is the cheapest category of rooms at Cowley Manor.  In other words, presumably the rooms get only nicer from here.

Our room was large and comfortable, but I was disappointed that the decor wasn’t half as modern chic as that of the rest of the house.  The overall effect was still very Dark Wood Paneling, and the bright, stunning bathroom we had at Barnsley House beat that of our Cowley room by a mile.  We had a lovely view of the Cowley Manor grounds, though.

snow pea leaves, asparagus and poached egg

roast duck breast and rosti

Dinner at Cowley Manor Restaurant was disappointing.  First, all our dishes were under-seasoned (though happily the restaurant leaves sea salt on every table, so you can DIY season).  Second, the poached egg in my starter was cooked for so long that the egg yolk was chalky rather than my beloved runny.  Third and least appealingly, roast duck breast was chewy and flavorless, perhaps as a result of its long acquaintance with a heat lamp.

We did, however, love our side order of chips, so next time we’ll probably stick to eating in the casual bar area of the manor.  Or we’ll walk the half mile to the nearby pub, the Green Dragon.

The restaurant dining room was attractive and had views of the garden, and gracious, attentive service.  But with our two starters, two mains and modest bottle of wine costing £100, I expected much better.

smoked salmon eggs benedict (brekkie included in room rates)

Breakfast is included in the room rate, and Cowley Manor’s spread was generous and good quality.  The fruit salad was packed with exotic fruits that tasted as good as they looked, and the croissants were ultra-flaky and buttery.  Hot dishes could be custom ordered, and I couldn’t resist the siren call of eggs benedict with smoked salmon instead of ham.  The egg yolks turned out soft boiled rather than runny, but the zippy hollandaise redeemed everything.    Overall, a better breakfast than at Barnsley House, which charged extra for hot dishes despite room rates being higher than those at Cowley.

picnic hamper (£45)

For £45, the kitchen will prepare a wicker picnic hamper for two and set up lunch anywhere on the manor’s gorgeous grounds.  Doing this was a lot of fun, and there was enough food for four in our hamper, so next time we’ll bring friends.  What the above photo fails to capture are the cheeses, lemon drizzle cake and berries that were also part of our hamper.

indoor pool at Cowley Manor spa

And here’s where Cowley Manor really shines and surpasses Barnsley House:  the spa.  Cowley, being a bigger place than Barnsley House, has a beautiful, large spa discreetly tucked away behind the main building.  There’s an indoor and outdoor pool, and even at busy times of day (i.e., a weekend afternoon), the atmosphere is relaxing.

outdoor pool at Cowley Manor spa

Jon and I treated ourselves to lengthy and excellent spa treatments and then whiled away a few hours poolside.  The spa staff, like everyone else we encountered at Cowley Manor, were friendly and attentive.

Overall, Barnsley House’s food, privacy and guest rooms were more appealing than those of Cowley Manor, but Cowley Manor’s spa facilities, first-rate staff and impressive-and-beautiful gardens leave me wanting to return to Cowley Manor before I’d go back to Barnsley House.

Which means this is the first time I’m choosing a getaway spot based on criteria other than food.  If CM’s restaurant improved a bit, the place would be perfect.

A “good room” (the least expensive category) at Cowley Manor was £250/night, which includes breakfast.

Cowley Manor, Cowley, Gloucestershire, GL53 9NL; (0)1242 870 900; reachable via First Great Western train from Paddington Station to Kemble Station (1.5 hours or less depending on whether you have to switch in Swindon). Then a 30-minute taxi ride costing £28 – £35 each way.

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La Grenouillere, Montreuil, France

Poor Pas de Calais.  Up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t question its commonly-held reputation as a pass-through to Paris or as a destination for an alcohol run.

Happily, Jon’s rellies invited us to their weekend home in Montreuil-sur-Mer so we could appreciate the charms of a pretty French village located two hours by train and car from London.

Montreuil-sur-Mer has many charms, but the star attraction in my book is Alexandre Gauthier‘s one-Michelin-starred restaurant, La Grenouillere, located just outside the town walls in La Madeleine-sous-Montreuil.

rice flour chips

The restaurant-inn is built around an idyllic courtyard that was perfect for outdoor aperos.  Pretty as the setting was, things got off to a rocky start with the rice flour “chips” that were served while we looked at the menu — they were hot and crispy (plus) but sadly stale-tasting (minus).

Our hosts, who’d been to La Grenouillere before, directed us towards the menu decouverte at 95 euros a person, and we moved inside for dinner.

cucumber, green strawberries and basil

John Dory, artichoke hearts and grilled garlic

Once seated, our dinner started with a series of carefully-constructed courses that would be at home in any 2-Michelin-star restaurant:   creative, attractive and tasty, and I’m giving all of them short shrift because of the three courses that arrived towards the end of the meal.  Three courses that were mind-blowingly good.

roast lobster tail hidden in a burning (Juniper) bush

roast lobster tail revealed

Our server entered the room trailing smoke.  He was carrying a tray of what appeared to be pine-tree branches on fire.  Theatrical to the nth degree.  What saved the course from gimmick was its sheer deliciousness.  This was the best hot lobster dish of my life.  Sweet, intensely smoky, juicy.  I’m drooling just thinking about it.  And to top it all off, we had to eat with our hands.  It turns out that eating lobster tail with your hands is both sexy and fun.  Our table couldn’t help laughing and smiling.

lobster claw soup

Waste not, want not.  Our next course was lobster soup packed with lobster claw meat and perfumed with sharp, stinky cheese foam.  If you understand the appeal of Cheez-Its, you’ll begin to understand what made this soup so irresistible.

flash grilled steak, thinly sliced, served with morels

And as if two memorably delicious courses weren’t enough, our meat course was yet another tour de force:  “ferré, mauvaises herbes,” which I translate as “rails, with weeds.”  Served tableside were thin slices of perfectly-rare steak somehow flash grilled with an intense smoky flavor.  How it looked and tasted so gorgeously grilled while staying silky and juicy is a mystery.

"jam and toast"

Steak course over, we went back to the merely clever, tasty and beautiful.  Jam and toast in haute couture form.

sorrel ice cream in a broken "glass"

“Bulle d’oseille” (bubble sorrel) was a highly amusing and whimsical palate cleanser.  I’d hate to ruin the game, but I will say that it’s worth ducking for cover when this course arrives.

the surprise ending (no spoiler here)

The ultimate surprise was the petit four.  Mum’s the word.

Dinner at La Grenouillere was delicious and fun.  It’s easy to become jaded when you eat out so often, and for a few hours, La Grenouillere brought back the wonder and joy of eating someplace special and new.  So plan a weekend away and see what Monsieur Gauthier is up to in Montreuil.

  • Menu decouverte (includes two lobster courses): 95 euros
  • Menu degustation (without the lobster courses): 75 euros [but really, you’d be missing the point if you skipped the lobster courses]
  • a la carte: 30-euro starters, 45-euro mains

La Grenouillere, La Madeleine-sous-Montreuil 62170 France; +33 (0)21 06 07 22; Eurostar runs several daily trains to Calais (a one-hour ride from St. Pancras) and then it’s a 50-minute drive south; alternatively, it’s a nice stop on the way from Paris to England, 2.5 hours northwest of Paris.

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Whitstable Oyster Fishery Restaurant


A week ago, summer had finally arrived in London, as had my parents, in town for a week-long visit. So Jon and I thought we’d take a day trip to Canterbury with a lunch break at nearby Whitstable.

Things were off to a good start on the high-speed train from St. Pancras to Canterbury West, which ran on the Eurostar tracks for much of the journey, took just under an hour, and cost only £55 for four return tickets.

Canterbury was warm and sunny, and it was an easy 15-minute walk to the Cathedral, which turned out to be the only thing in town really worth seeing. The Tourist Information office across the street from the Cathedral entrance provided great maps to both Canterbury and Whitstable, as well as a list of the cycle shops (two) in town where we could rent bicycles. Both shops were sold out, so instead of cycling the 7 miles to Whitstable along the charmingly-named Crab & Winkle Way, we took a 30-minute, super-slow ride on the bus.

Unsurprisingly, the Michelin-starred Sportsman in Whitstable was fully booked for lunch that day, so instead we ended up at the lively Whitstable Oyster Fishery Company.

Pros: The Whitstable Oyster Fishery’s dining rooms are high-ceilinged, bright, and cheerfully rustic. There are views of the sea, and the seafood, generally, tasted fresh and was served in generous portions.

Cons: The service was extraordinarily slow. We waited 35 minutes for our starters to arrive, and another 45 minutes for our mains. And despite several repeat requests for tap water, water was not forthcoming. Apparently the easygoing pace of seaside living is not for me.


grilled king prawns (£9)



fried calamari (£8.50)


Starters of mussels mariniere (£9.50), grilled king prawns, and fried calamari were all very good. The prawns in particular reminded me of Barrafina‘s sweet-tasting giants and were well worth the £9 for two. The leftover melted garlic butter served with the prawns was my favorite for sopping up with bread, though my dad thought the mariniere sauce had the edge.


fish and chips (£16-ish)


Fish and chips were a mixed result: the cod was silky firm and gorgeously flaky, and the batter was light and golden. The mushy peas actually tasted like peas – sweet and smooth – but the chips were a stale-tasting letdown.


pan-fried skate (£17.50)



whole lobster (£24)


Jon’s skate was sadly thin and meagre, but he enjoyed what little meat there was. Being environment killers, my mom and I split the steamed lobster imported from Canada, which was served cold. The meat was a bit mealy and the accompanying minted potato salad tasted overwhelmingly of mint (not good), but that’s what I get for ordering something that comes from Canada.

With various beers and lemonades, our total for four was £112, which was fair for the overall quality of the seafood and the scenic environs, but a bit steep for the incredible slowness and unhelpfulness of the service.

After lunch, we took a quick walk around Whitstable harbour, which, sadly, is not attractive. Not only is the harbour crowded with industrial machines and boats, but also the nearby beaches are of the stony variety. So we quickly returned to Canterbury to pay our £8 each to see the famous cathedral and hopped back on the train to London.

Overall, a pleasant day trip out of London, but I wouldn’t return to the area without (a) reserving a table at the Sportsman and (b) reserving a bicycle to try out the Crab & Winkle Way.

Whitstable Oyster Fishery Restaurant, Horsebridge Road, Whitstable, Kent CT5 1AF; 01227 276 856.

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Barnsley House, near Cirencester, in the Cotswolds

Barnsley House, near Cirencester, in the Cotswolds

Jon and I had to turn in our passports this month to change our visa status (just in case either of us gets fired, we don’t want to be deported), so for all of March, we couldn’t leave the country. As consolation for not being able to travel (and taking advantage of the recent good fortune of sunny weekends), we decided it was high time to visit the Cotswolds. Sure we’ve been to Bath a few times, but a true Cotswolds getaway seems to involve an old country pile somewhere. And that’s where the Barnsley House comes in.

Generally when Jon and I travel on holiday, we don’t stay in luxe accommodations, figuring it’s a waste of money because we’re out and about so much. But when Jon mentioned Barnsley House’s fabulous spa facilities, tasty-sounding restaurant, and a current promotion of weekend rooms at £362 a night (including breakfast and dinner for the two-night minimum stay), I didn’t need to be asked twice.

We arrived on Friday night, after a 1.5-hour train ride from Paddington, followed by a 20-minute taxi ride from Kemble station.

house champers and truffles upon arrival

house champers and truffles upon arrival

Upon arrival, a receptionist immediately walked us up to our room, showed Jon how all the Bose and Bang & Olufson equipment worked while I filled out credit card details on a simple form, and then left us to relax over a free bottle of house champers. We could’ve been arriving at a friend’s house, rather than checking into a hotel. A strong start.

ooh and ahh-worthy bathroom

Part of the reason we decided to spend the weekend at Barnsley House instead of at nearby competitor Cowley Manor is because we’d read excellent things about the food. So after loafing around in our enormous room and oohing and ahhing like hicks over our stupendous bathroom, we walked downstairs for dinner.

roasted pork loin with honeyed prawn

roasted pork loin with honeyed prawn

Dinner at the Barnsley House is prix fixe only. 3 courses for £42.50 or 4 for £49.50. There’s lots to choose from, and having eaten in the resto both nights of our stay, I was interested in how the kitchen managed to evolve the menu from one day to the next. What was pork loin one day was pork belly and crackling the next. I’d like to imagine that over the next few days, you’d see pork shoulder, pork head, pork trotter . . . .

Much of the veg on the menu is grown in the house gardens, and all the meat comes from local producers.

Did you know Liz Hurley raises pigs? I didn’t. It does seem a bit ironic, don’t you think? But her country getaway lies just behind the Barnsley House, and how could I resist the “organic Hurley loin of pork with red onions and honeyed tiger prawns”? It was good meat – juicy and rich, with a crisp, delicate, salty crackling. A thing of beauty. The tiger prawn was besides the point (and by the way, there was only one prawn, so why the menu said “tiger prawns” is beyond me).

Jon tried out the signature vincisgrassi, which the menu described as “baked pasta with Parma ham, porcini and truffles.” It was tasty, but to our perhaps-slightly-unappreciative eye, it looked and tasted like lasagna. A really creamy, good lasagna, but still, lasagna.

a view of the garden from the restaurant

a view of the garden from the restaurant

While the food is pretty ambitious and well-executed, it’s not destination dining, and the food shares the spotlight with the dining room, which overlooks the House’s famous Rosemary Verey gardens. The room looked its best in the morning, when the sun brightened and warmed the generously-spaced tables. (You really can pretend like you have full run of the place – the Barnsley House is about the luxury of privacy and space).

pot roast chicken with parma ham at the Village Pub

pot roast chicken drumstick with parma ham at the Village Pub (£16)

For a change of scenery, we walked 100 yards down the street from Barnsley House for lunch at the Village Pub, which is also owned and operated by the Barnsley House. While we did recognize a few other Barnsley House guests there at lunchtime, the place seemed to be popular with locals, too. The food, though, was hit-or-miss, and Jon’s mediocre £16 chicken drumstick was pretty ridiculous. Service was also an issue – we waited over half an hour for our starters, which were a curried parsnip soup and a potted pork. Not exactly stuff that needed intensive effort before serving. It was hard to believe the Village Pub and the Barnsley House were related at all.

Overall, we had a delicious, relaxing weekend at the Barnsley House. It’s one of those places where all the components (service, decor, food, spa facilities), each taken alone, are at a high level, and combined, are unforgettable. We saw our final tab double the promotion price once we factored in wines at dinner, lunches, and (really wonderful) spa treatments. Incredibly enough, though, I thought our weekend was worth every penny.

As stated above, Jon and I took advantage of a promotion for rooms at £362 a night (including breakfast and dinner for the two-night minimum stay).  However, on the Barnsley House website, it says if you stay on a weeknight, the price is reduced to £185 a night. Worth taking a day off from work, I tell you.

Barnsley House, Barnsley, Circencester, Gloucestershire GL7 5EE; 01285 740000; closest rail station: Kemble (from London Paddington), followed by a 20-minute, £20 taxi ride.

The Village Pub, Barnsley, Circencester, Gloucestershire GL7 5EF; 01285 740421.

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potato leek soup at the Marlborough Tavern

potato leek soup at the Marlborough Tavern

Last Saturday, Jon and I were in Bath for an afternoon of R&R at the Thermae Spa, and to fortify ourselves for the tough task of undergoing spa treatments and lounging in the steam room and pools, we needed lunch.

Despite its mention in the 2009 Michelin Guide, The Marlborough Tavern didn’t make a good first impression. Like most buildings in Bath, the Tavern’s stone exterior looked stark and forbidding in the cold, winter gray. But once we were inside, servers were welcoming, and the fireplace warming.

The menu choices were limited (i.e., a burger, a terrine, specials of the day and lots of sandwiches). But everything we tried showed a lot of care and attention to detail. And I much prefer a place that does a few things well, rather than a lot of things poorly.

My soup-of-the-day was a potato-leek with a suspiciously-dark-brown color. I’m guessing they caramelized the leeks to get it that brown, but however it was made, the soup was rich and creamy.  Homemade garlic croutons and lots of minced chives were attractive and tasty finishing touches.

veal stew

veal stew

Jon’s veal stew was hot, fork-tender, but I thought my chorizo-and-pepper sandwich was the high point of our lunch.

I’d expected a Brindisa-style grilled whole sausage slapped onto a roll, but despite the pedestrian appearance of the Marlborough’s version, the sandwich was delish. The bun was toasted; the chorizo was grilled and thinly sliced in neat-to-eat layers. The baby/microsprouts salad on the side added color, crunch and lightness.

chorizo sandwich

chorizo sandwich

Most mains on the menu were £8-10, and I loved the pot of fragrant English Breakfast for £1.50. Our tab for two mains, a starter and drinks totaled £30 after service.

Thermae Spa

Thermae Spa

And then the rest of our day at the Thermae Spa was exactly what we needed. It’s been almost a year and a half since our first trip to the Thermae Spa, and I was glad to see things were still as clean and luxurious as I remembered, especially when you consider the high volume of visitors the Spa receives. I love the Thermae’s spaciousness and the fact that all the water is thermal (it eases my liberal-environmental guilt).

If it weren’t a two-hour train ride to Bath, I’d be down there more often.  Especially during these cold, gloomy months.

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Petersham Nurseries, Richmond, Surrey

Petersham Nurseries, Richmond, Surrey

Soon after my friend made our reservations at Petersham Nurseries Cafe (you have to call about a month in advance), I saw that New Yorker in London had popped over and enjoyed it, which was encouraging, but I still had a few weeks to wait patiently.

Last weekend, our day finally arrived, and – what a perk – the day was crisp and sunny. I was in a good mood just walking through Richmond High Street, along the Thames and through the meadows. I thought “it just couldn’t be prettier than this,” but actually, I was wrong. The Petersham Nurseries is, in fact, even prettier than the walk it takes to get there. Eggbeater said it best when she called the place “a food stylist’s dream and a museum curator’s fantasy.” This is no Home Depot Garden Center. Petersham Nurseries is so achingly charming that the high prices in the cafe are easier to swallow if you figure you’re paying partly for the ambiance.

Farinata, speck and pecorino salad

Farinata, speck and pecorino salad

The menu changes almost daily, and there’s not a lot to choose from. Three sections: starters, mains and desserts. Only four options in each section, but what fab options they were!

I loved my starter – a salad with farinata, speck and pecorino. Farinata, I learned, is just another name for my beloved Riviera friend, socca – a crispy chickpea-flour pancake. Shards of farinata served hot with the salad added nice texture and warmth to the luscious fatty-salty speck, and creamy, dry pecorino. The only downside to my salad was its hefty pricetag: £11, but my salad was a steal compared to the *yawn* pumpkin ravioli my three dining companions ordered.

roasted guinea fowl with grilled radicchio and balsamic mayonnaise

roasted guinea fowl with grilled radicchio and balsamic mayonnaise

Mains were a highlight. Our server highly recommended the guinea fowl, which she said she’d just had for lunch, and she was spot on. The skin was beautifully crisped, the meat was firm, juicy and rich. The creamy, sweet balsamic mayo blended and balanced perfectly with the radicchio’s smoky bitterness. So simple, but fresh and well-executed. Worth the £21.

monkfish curry with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and bhatura

monkfish curry with coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves and bhatura

Jon’s monkfish curry had sounded out of place on the otherwise English-classics menu (so I was skeptical the kitchen would pull it off) but what came to the table was light and tasty. More Mediterranean than Thai. There was only the slightest hint of coconut in the sauce, and we learned the chef was on a chickpea kick, because the bhatura turned out to be more crispy chickpea flour.

baked ricotta with olive and tomato crush

baked ricotta with olive and tomato crush

My friend’s baked ricott was so simple and genius that I can’t wait to buy some good stuff from the cheese guy at next Sunday’s farmer’s market and try it myself. If you’d written off ricotta as bland, then I’d recommend trying the Petersham Nurseries version. It was so intense that it needed the greens and tapenade to tone down the salty-herby-creaminess.

gorgonzola dolce with red wine figs

gorgonzola dolce with red wine figs

And although we were stuffed after our starters and mains, we couldn’t help eyeing the desserts going to tables around us. My gorgonzola dolce was beautiful to look at it, and beautiful to taste. The sweet figs and the creamy, sharp gorgonzola should be married for life.

bread and butter pudding with fresh custard

bread and butter pudding with fresh custard

I didn’t eat the bread pudding or the mousse pictured below, but only because my friends gobbled them down faster than I could reach their plates to steal some. I will say, though, that I could smell the vanilla and cinnamon on the bread pudding, and no wonder – there were specks of vanilla pod in there. Quality goods.

chocolate mousse with ginger caramel

chocolate mousse with ginger caramel

Our meal, even without wine, was not cheap. Starters were £10-11; mains were £20-27; and desserts £7-8. We enjoyed a refreshing pitcher of mint-elderflower lemonade, and our tab came to £45 a person before service.

While I definitely see Andy Hayler’s point about the Cafe’s prices being high for a “garden centre cafe,” I think Petersham Nurseries is a unique place. Special enough that it’s not just a garden cafe. The high-quality ingredients in our lunch were carefully prepared and presented; the surroundings are cheerful and charming, and the service – while, as usual in London, understaffed – was helpful and friendly. I had a wonderful time and would love to bring back friends, especially those from out of town. Petersham Nurseries was, for me, quintessentially country English, so I’ll think of a trip there as something like going to the Tower of London – except a much better deal.

Petersham Nurseries Cafe, off Petersham Road, Richmond, Surrey; 0208 605 3627; closest tube station: Richmond (and then it’s still a 20-minute walk to Petersham Nurseries, so bring your walking shoes. Apparently you can also take a bus from Richmond station.)
Petersham Nurseries Cafe on Urbanspoon

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Le Cassoulet, Croydon

Le Cassoulet, Croydon

Jon and I eat out often with friends, but we try to set aside Friday nights as “date night” to make sure we get some alone time. Continuing with my French kick, last week’s date night destination was Le Cassoulet in South Croydon, and we certainly had lots of bonding time getting there and back.

You’d think that having returned from Paris recently that we’d be French fooded out, but you’d be wrong. Now that darkness comes at 4 pm, a hearty cassoulet is just the thing to make me happy.

In Time Out‘s 2008 Eating and Drinking Awards, Le Cassoulet won the title of Best Local Restaurant, which, now that I’ve been there, seems to mean that the food, decor, service and prices are excellent, but it’s just such a schlepp to get there that it’s not a destination restaurant. It’s a 30-minute train ride from London Bridge station to South Croydon, and then a 5-minute walk to the restaurant, which doesn’t sound bad until you factor in having to look up train times, get to the train station, buy tickets, wait for the train, etc. [Yes, I’m a center-city brat who will never live in the ‘burbs if I can help it.]

potted ham at Le Cassoulet

potted ham at Le Cassoulet

We sat down on cushy banquette seats and eyed our neighbors’ dishes. Portions looked big, so we shared a starter – potted ham hock (£6). It didn’t have the creamy pate-style texture I was craving, but the deep-pink ham bits were salty and meaty, so I was happy. The dijon-dressed gherkins and radishes added color, texture and tang. The only thing missing was an extra slice of toast.

the signature dish at Le Cassoulet

signature dish at Le Cassoulet

The cassoulet was super star thanks to the white beans, which were creamy and fork-tender without having turned into mush. And of course they absorbed all the meaty juices from the generous duck confit shreds, garlicky sausage and rich pork-belly pieces. A vegetarian nightmare, but my dream come true on a winter’s night.

Rib eye steak (cote de boeuf) with bearnaise sauce

Rib eye steak (cote de boeuf) with bearnaise sauce

And what self-respecting bistro would fail to offer a steak frites? Le Cassoulet’s rib eye was rare and dripping with meat juice. Well-marbled and no gristly bits. I haven’t had a better steak in London. Certainly not for less for £18.

I had a great time at Le Cassoulet. The food was classic and comforting, and many wines were available by the glass or carafe. Service was attentive and friendly, and tap water was no problem. If Le Cassoulet were in central London, I’d be planning to eat there every day. But because it’s in South Croydon, I’ll probably go there only when seized by a powerful craving for top-notch cassoulet.  Of course if someone has ideas on what else to do in South Croydon, I’m all ears.

Most appetizers were £6-8, and mains were £15-18. Our tab with a carafe of wine and a forgettable side dish came to £70.

Le Cassoulet, 18 Selsdon Road, Croydon, Surrey, CR2 6PA; 020 8633 1818; closest rail station: South Croydon
Le Cassoulet on Urbanspoon

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Royal Pavillion, Brighton

Before going to Brighton this past weekend, I knew only that (1) it’s a seaside resort popular with London daytrippers since the 1800s, and (2) these days, Brighton is known for a happening nightlife and cool gay scene. For some reason, I thought the happening nightlife/gay scene rep would mean the city was super-cool and chic-looking, but actually, the parts I saw just seemed kind of shabby and sad.

Brighton Beach and Pier in the distance

The good news is that going to Brighton takes only an hour by train, and from the Brighton train station, it’s a quick walk to the boardwalk and beach. The bad news is that the boardwalk and beach are kind of depressing and not worth visiting. Don’t go to Brighton thinking you’re going to find a gorgeous crescent of sand or a well-maintained, pretty boardwalk (like the one in, say, San Sebastian). Oh no. Think hard pebble beaches, “beach pubs” that reek of day-old beer spilled on the floor, and a pier packed with seedy arcade games and community-fair-calibre rides that cost £8 a pop. (more…)

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Haddock & Leek mille feuille at Olive Tree

Although this post is a long-delayed wrap-up of eating in Bath, I first have to note that yesterday was the second anniversary of my arrival in London. Oh, I’m sure the British are cheering now.

Well, on to the chow: on the whole, the places we ate in Bath served well-prepared, quality food, but service is generally where things fell apart.

On the pricier end of our meals (£18-25 per main course) was the Olive Tree restaurant located in the Queensbury Hotel, not far from the Circus and Royal Crescent. The Olive Tree’s food is supposed to be modern Mediterranean, but I think “modern” anything just means you can count on a choice of fish, meat and chicken dish with upscale trimmings and presentation.  Overall, I’d go back.

I wasn’t thrilled that we were seated in an area that felt like it used to be a bar/anteroom. The servers would hover and hang out near the bar, which was next to our table, or else they’d be zipping back and forth looking kind of stressed. There just shouldn’t have been a table where we sat.

On the bright side, our crappy table location meant the light was good enough that I could photograph the food, and we were far away from the bachelorette party seated at the heart of the main dining room.

Highlights: A corn soup amuse, while not super-creative, was summery sweet without being syrupy. Jon’s scallops were, again, sweet and perfectly rare, and my haddock-and-leek mille feuille was a tasty deconstructed fish pie:  flaky pastry crust layers served with light, white fish meat and a sweet, creamy leek puree.

From the photo at the top of this post, you can see that the presentation of the mille feuille was just a little too busy, but it tasted good, which is really what matters most in the end.

The cheese course was the most disappointing part of our meal: all four cheeses lacked intensity of flavor. Based on taste, they all could’ve been the same cheese despite the outward appearance of being a blue cheese, goat’s cheese, etc. Save your £9 and either try a different dessert or call it a day.

Firehouse Rotisserie in Bath

The Firehouse Rotisserie was slightly less pricey than the Olive Tree (I keep wanting to say Olive Garden . . . ) with main courses in the £12-20 range. Jon and I were sucked in by our B&B’s description of this place as “California casual.” The decor is warm and cozy (see photo above), but the food is too random and rich to be called “California,” really.

When was the last time lamb tagine was served in a California-style eatery?

For a starter, Jon and I shared a passable chorizo pizza (the crust was thin and the sauce had a good sweet-and-salty balance, but the chorizo was not too tasty), and then Jon devoured a steak frites, while I stuck with the braised lamb and couscous. The lamb was good, but the real draw was the couscous, which was fluffy and chock full of slivered almonds and dried apricots. I only wish I’d gotten a little more couscous and a little less lamb. Overall, a good vibe in the dining room, friendly service, and good-quality (but random) food.

Boston Tea Party coffeehouse in Bath

The Boston Tea Party deserves a mention because of the gazillion times we dropped by for their strong, rich espressos and coffees. It sits in Kingsmead Square, near the Thermae Baths and the Mezzaluna restaurant (which we’d read great things about but which was closed when we tried to eat there). So if you need a coffee fix, or if you’re just highly amused by the name (what do you think it means to most Britons?), definitely give the Boston Tea Party a try.Real Italian Pizza Co., Bath

For a quick lunch, Jon and I sort of enjoyed our pizzas at the Real Italian Pizza Co, located on York Road just behind the Bath Abbey, but the service was outrageously slow. It was the classic situation of two servers for two dining rooms, with each dining room packed with forty or fifty diners. I felt kind of bad for the servers, but honestly, pizza is no good when it gets cold, no matter how high-quality the ingredients are. So I have a feeling that with one or two more servers, the pizza would actually be good because it might still be hot when it arrives at your table.

We had much better luck next door at the equally-creatively-named “Real Italian Ice Cream” shop. The gelato there was airy and rich-flavored. No vacation is complete without some quality ice cream in the park, so we headed over to the nearby Parade Gardens to lick down our chocolate and strawberry cones.  And that’s all I can recall now about our eating adventures in Bath.

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Pulteney Bridge, Bath

Even though it’s been over two hundred years since Bath was a hotspot for the rich and famous, Jon and I figured it was still worth a visit this past weekend because (1) it’s only two hours southwest of London by train; (2) the restored Thermae Bath Spa has gotten good press; and (3) I love Jane Austen, who lived there on and off and set two novels in Bath.

Despite the summer crowds, I really enjoyed our time in Bath. It’s a small, walkable city with pretty, buff-colored stone buildings and bridges, scenic country views, and just enough history and culture to fill a weekend. You could easily make it a daytrip from London, but I think Bath is a town where you should while away the time. With two nights there, I was able to “do the sights” as well as take advantage of the local bath spas from which Bath takes it name (and original fame).

My three favorite “things to see and do” in Bath: (1) The Thermae Bath Spa; (2) The Jane Austen Walking Tour; and (3) Sitting in the Parade Gardens.

1. The Thermae Bath Spa

Bath gets its name from the natural hot springs that have drawn visitors since Roman times. Apparently there are only three places in the UK where hot springs naturally bubble up, and all three are in Bath, so you can imagine the excitement people felt for many years about visiting Bath to “take the waters.”

What’s great about the Thermae Bath, which makes use of hot spring water from all three wellheads (I think), is that its architecture and interior design appear super luxe, but the entrance price tag of £20 (i.e., use of saunas and pools without day spa treatments) encourages mass access. You just have to show up in the morning to get assigned an appointment time, first come, first served, and then later in the day, you show up at that time, pay your £20, and off you go.

Lest you hear the word “spring” and think piddly little puddles of cloudy water, apparently 1.25 million litres of 110 F water pour out every day from these hot springs. This enormous flow and temperature explains how relaxing, large and *clean* the Thermae Spa pools are.Thermae Bath, Minerva Bath The lower-ground floor pool is nice and well-skylighted (see photo at right), but its appeal is probably strongest in the cold, rainy months.

Jon and I quickly made our way to the second floor, where there are four sleek steam sauna chambers, each with a different scent. We were big fans of the eucalyptus-and-mint as well as the mountain pine saunas. Lavender and frankincense were appealing, but no match. In between sessions in the different saunas, we took cooling showers in the giant motion-sensored rainfall shower in the middle of all these sauna chambers.

Oh, but there’s more! The rooftop pool was almost as large as the lower-ground floor pool, except it also had beautiful views of Bath rooftops and the surrounding Somerset countryside. And because the pool waters are pumped up from natural hot springs, I didn’t feel guilty about the enormous cost an outdoor heated pool usually incurs. Feeling guilt-free: priceless.

It’s a tough call deciding whether my favorite floor was the sauna or the hot spring pool on the rooftop, but I will definitely revisit the Thermae Bath. And if I call farther in advance, I’ll book one of the additional spa treaments, priced lower than anything you’d find in London. It’d be great to re-visit the spa in February — the heart of dampest, dark winter here.

2. Jane Austen Walking Tour

Even though Jon has never made it through a single Jane Austen novel, he still enjoyed this 1.5-hour walking tour. It’s more a tour of Bath with a few references to Jane Austen than it is a recounting of obscure scenes from Jane Austen novels. Our tour guide, Dickon, was one of those local white-haired guys who you know *loves* doing these tours and whose relatives are grateful that he has this outlet for his chatty friendliness.

We walked through the Pump Room, so named because water from the hot springs, believed to have medicinal properties, was pumped up into a fountain so visitors in Bath could drink the waters. In Jane Austen’s time, all the fashionable people would stop by the Pump Room to see and be seen. The Pump Room even housed a book (“the arrivals book”) where people signed in when they arrived in town, and this way, everyone could find one another and hang out.King’s Bath Fountain in the Pump Room, Bath

The Pump Room is still a high-ceilinged, chandeliered, gorgeous room, and for 50p, you can buy a glass of spa water from the King’s Fountain (click thumbnail at left). I’d skip eating a meal in the Pump Room restaurant, though, as pretty as the room looks. The food appeared to be mediocre and expensive.

The beauty of listing the walking tour as “one” favorite activity is that it covers all the major sights in Bath. I loved walking along the Avon River (there are several rivers in the UK all named the Avon) and listening to the rush of water going over the man-made waterfalls by the triple-arched Pulteney Bridge (see photo at top of this post).Upper Assembly Rooms, Bath And the last of the nice spots we explored on the walking tour were the Upper Assembly Rooms, where the aristos threw parties and dances for themselves (see photo at right).

Of course, all you Persuasion fans remember that the Upper Assembly Rooms are where Anne Elliot suspects William Elliot is not for her and that Captain Wentworth loves her still. Dreamy.

3. Parade Gardens

There are lots of green spots in Bath, particularly near the Royal Crescent, but the Parade Gardens are super-central, well-manicured, and include nice sun chairs. You pay £1 admission to get into the Gardens, which seems kind of lame for a public park, but we spent many a relaxing hour hanging out in the sunshine and listening to the brass bands that perform in the Garden’s gazebo. I highly recommend taking a break or two here if you’re tired of shopping or want to get away from the crowds around Bath Abbey.Parade Gardens, Bath

And that rounds out my fave 3 in Bath. Checking out the pretty Georgian buildings in the Royal Crescent and the Circus are a must, but Bath is so small, you’re bound to walk by these places at some point, so I wouldn’t count them as “destinations,” really.

Number 1 Royal Crescent is now open as a museum, where for £5 a person, you can see what a “typical” aristocratic home in the Crescent would’ve looked like in the 18th century. From our visit to Number 1, my three takeaways (because good things come in three!) are: snuffers(1) high-class women in the 18th c. so seldom washed their elaborate hair styles that they needed little maggot scratchers to pick out worms that grew in their hair over time (note to self: if ever I am reborn in the 18th century, I’ll hope to be a respectable middle class lady and not an aristo slave to fashion!); (2) wrought-iron “cones” near doorways are actually snuffers used to put out torches carried by sedan chair boys at night (click on thumbnail at left); and (3) aristos painted their interior wood walls to look like stone. How odd. What was so bad about wood walls?

Jon and I skipped paying the £11.50 each to see the Roman Baths, mostly because we saw the small King’s Bath for free while walking through the Pump Rooms, and we couldn’t imagine what the fuss would be over the slightly-larger Roman Baths next door.

And no matter how big a Jane Austen fan you are, I’d skip the Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street. The mannequin dressed in Regency clothing guarding the doorway should have been a giveaway that your £5 are better spent elsewhere.

Jane Austen Centre mannequin, Bath

The Centre admission price includes a 15-minute lecture recounting Jane Austen’s biography, followed by a guide’s offer to take you upstairs to “have tea with Mr. Darcy” (how embarrassing for all parties involved), and should you decline said tea, you’re then directed to the basement of the house, where you can read a lot of text mounted on the walls and watch a 15-minute video of an interview with the costume designer for the 2007 ITV version of Persuasion.

Choice quotes by the designer included: “I was fascinated by the relationship between [the actress who played Anne Elliot] and the antique paisley shawls I found.”I didn’t know you could have a relationship with a shawl, but there you go.The one plaque at the Centre that was mildly interesting described (of course) money. Apparently, in the 18th century, you were the creme de la creme (i.e., one of only 300 aristocratic families in the UK) if you earned £4,000 a year. Oh, those were the days!

Next post will talk eats in Bath.

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Nadal in Action on Day 10, Wimbledon

Tom got Jon and me tickets to Wimbledon today, and after arriving at the All-England Club at 11 am with Tom, I immediately headed to Court 2, where Rafael Nadal was playing Mikhail Youzhny. Apparently Court 2 is known as the Graveyard of Champions because of all the upsets that have happened there, and for the first two sets today, I felt sure I was witnessing another one unfold as Youzhny kicked Nadal’s ass, 6-4, 6-3.

Even though I don’t follow tennis at all, I knew there was something rather odd about a fourth-round game between the Number 2 and Number 14 taking place on Court 2. And I also know I wasn’t the only one who wondered why they weren’t playing on the larger and fancier Court 1 or Centre Court.

The rumor is that the All-England Club didn’t take too kindly to Nadal’s critique yesterday of the Club’s decision not to allow play this past Sunday despite all the rain-caused delays. So I guess if you open your big mouth, you end up playing at the Graveyard.

Well, it turns out Court 2 was no Graveyard today, and in fact, it had a lot going for it. Because it’s so small, every spectator has a great seat (see my photo at the top of this post). Yours truly sat in seat D20, meaning I was four rows back from the court, right behind the press photographers. Brilliant!

From the players’ point of view, you don’t end up with depressing pockets of empty seats caused by, for example, corporate guests who don’t bother showing up or who leave early (although one jackass in my row kept talking into his Blackberry despite the announcement to turn off cell phones – and do you really even need an announcement?).

Everyone in little ol’ Court 2 was excited to be there, and the few seats that opened up during the 3-hour match were immediately filled in under the efficient instructions of the “Volunteer Wardens.”

Nadal serves, Day 10, WimbledonIn any case, I’m no sports writer, so you can read all about the details of the exciting match elsewhere. The summary is that Nadal came blazing back to win the next three sets, which is a testament to both Nadal’s great playing and a sudden drop in Youzhny’s. Apparently, Youzhny’s back pain kicked in after the second set, as his trainers were on the court between games doing to Youzhny what I imagine chiropractors do.

I loved everything about watching the match live – hearing the players’ every word (Nadal favors “si!” when he’s happy with his play), watching their expressions and quirks (yes, Nadal does touch his socks and carefully arrange his water bottles), admiring the precision and obvious training of the judges and ball boys and girls, and getting carried away by the crowd’s excitement.

When the match hit Set 5, the crowd’s mood, always attentive, suddenly turned enthusiastic and loud. Chanting, clapping and hooting replaced genteel clapping. As the British woman next to me said: “It’s like we’ve become an American audience.”

Rain was always a threat during the match, and at one point, everyone put up their umbrellas, anxiously hoping that play would continue. And it did, much to the happiness of everyone, including the players.

After the match, the drizzling started up again, and then it became heavier. There aren’t many places to take cover, but luckily Tom had magically obtained “Press Centre Guest” bracelets for Jon and me, which allowed us to hang out in (you guessed it) the Press Centre.

Press Centre Restaurant, Wimbledon

Although the food was incredibly lousy and expensive at the Press Centre Restaurant, Jon and I whiled away many an hour there, enjoying the views of Henman Hill while hoping the rain would end. We did, after all, obtain “resale” tickets to Centre Court, where Roger Federer had just started his first set against Juan Carlos Ferrero.

I do appreciate how well Wimbledon handles rain, all things considered. The courts are not only covered by plastic tarps, but also the tarps are inflated from beneath so that they take on a rounded shape, which leads water to run down the sides, rather than collect in the middle. Clever, no?

Court 14 Cover and Henman Hill, Wimbledon

Alas, the rains stuck around, and at 7:30 pm, play was officially ended for the day. Jon and I took one last look around an empty and covered Centre Court (see below), and home we went. I suppose you can’t hope to see both Nadal and Federer on the same day, unless they’re playing each other, that is.

Centre Court in the rain, Wimbledon 2007

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Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot, 2007

Conversations over the past few weeks about Royal Ascot have followed two patterns depending on who I’m talking to. With Americans back home, the conversation usually starts with the question: What’s Royal Ascot?  Answer: a horse race that the Queen likes to attend.

With Brits or Americans in London, the question is usually: Have you got a hat, and where are you sitting?Answer: Yes, and the Royal Enclosure.  Logical follow-on question: “Umm, how did you end up in the Royal Enclosure? (pause) No offense or anything.”

Royal Ascot lasts about a week – from Tuesday through Saturday. There are six races a day run at the Ascot racecourse (which sits next to Windsor, explaining the association with the royal family, I suppose).

As is true about many British traditions, there’s a lot of history and baggage about Royal Ascot that I’ll probably never appreciate, but here’s my point of view anyway:

Admission tickets to Royal Ascot come in three types: Silver Ring (£15 per day), Grandstand tickets (£54 per day), and Royal Enclosure tickets (£78 a day). The goal for most attendees is a combination of getting drunk with friends and wearing nice clothes. In the Royal Enclosure, the goal is just to be invited.

Traditionally, you have the privilege of paying £78 for a ticket only if you’re (1) a member of the Royal Enclosure; or (2) “sponsored for membership” by a member who’s attended at least four times. Membership, I assume, means you’ve got a link to high society, which I definiely do not. [And this year, for the first time in the 300-year-old history of the race, you can buy your way in to the Enclosure with corporate packages starting at £530 a pop, which is definitely not the way I got in.]

So, the question remains how did an arriviste like me end up in the Royal Enclosure?  Well, I thank my friend Jane for cluing me in to this (for lack of a better word) trick: As an American, you apply to the Enclosure through the US Embassy, so perhaps technically, you’re in the Royal Enclosure as a guest of the US Ambassador. The applications are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. If you’ve gotten in, the US Embassy writes you a letter to say your application is accepted and encloses a Royal Enclosure ticket form, which you fill out (with payment details, of course) and mail to “Her Majesty’s Representative.” I actually never received my ticket in the mail, but I did get a receipt telling me my credit card had been charged.

Royal Enclosure badge, Ascot, 2007

Because my ticket didn’t arrive in the mail, when I first arrived at the Ascot racecourse, I went to a Royal Enclosure “lost ticket” desk. The desk was total chaos, and it turns out that for the Enclosure, you don’t get a ticket. Rather, you get a pin that’s so ridiculously easy to copy (i.e., my name was written in with a sharpie), I wonder about all the fuss it takes to get in to the Royal Enclosure.I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

Once Jane and I (and our friend, Sahar) learned we were going to the Royal Enclosure, we set to work on dressing appropriately. Although everyone, no matter what section, dresses up for the races, there are no strict rules about it unless you’re in the Royal Enclosure. The key restrictions are: men wear top hat and morning coats; women wear dresses and a hat that covers the crown of your head (and no scandalous things like – gasp – trousers).Diva blue hats

HATS! Jane, Sahar and I figured if we were going to pull this thing off, we’d do it right, so we went to a milliner named Emily Birch, who’s a friend of a friend. Emily has her own millinery business outside of her day job, which is to work for the Queen’s milliner. Having a hat custom made is known as “model millinery,” and with Emily’s help, I went through a crash course on differences between department-store hats and model millinery.

The three of us brought Emily our dresses, and then we tried on samples in her home studio to get a feel for what shape of hat would be flattering. I chose a stylish variation on the traditional brimmed hat, which means mine has a brim that broke and folded up in the back, and I wore it at a sharp tilt (it’s kept secure with an elastic that you run under your hair).

The details that Emily dreamt up were beautiful: the sinamay was overlaid with an ornate, lacy pattern; the brim was edged with a hand-sewn grosgrain; the four types of feathers trimming the hat were hand-dyed to match my dress and again sewn (not glue gunned) to the hat. The photo to the above left shows Jane’s hat and mine. Fabulous, no?

Two fittings and several weeks after our initial meeting, Emily had created beautiful and unique hats for the three of us. Her hats cost upwards of £300, which is pricey, but the compliments Jane, Sahar and I received on our hats (and all the little girls who openly stared and smiled at our hats) – well, that was priceless. (I see a MasterCard commercial in the works, don’t you?)

The trains from Waterloo to Ascot were standing-room-only packed, and these are trains that run every 10-15 minutes from Waterloo. A lot of passengers had started drinking early in the morning and kept up the partying while on the train, which I guess is fun for everyone except the people on the train who are sober (like me).

It was a rainy day, but we loved our time at the races. We arrived just in time to see the Royal Procession roll in on the race track (i.e.,the Queen and her guests arrive by carriage from Windsor), which signals the start of racing for the day. Because the Royal Enclosure includes a slice of lawn by the finish line, we were able to get right up by the fence within 15 feet of the passing carriages, and Jane took this fantastic photo of the Queen and Prince Philip:

Queen’s arrival in the Royal Procession, Ascot 2007

The three of us stuck around for four of the six races yesterday, and not only did we people watch, but also we placed bets in three races, picking either the winner or second-place winner every time. It’s always nice to be a winner, especially when a few of our picks were underdogs with odds of 34:1 for a win payout, but even if we hadn’t won, the races were fun to watch. There was one short race, the Golden Jubilee Stakes, that took place only on the straightaway portion, so in that one, there were 21 horses thundering down the track, which was pretty colorful and dramatic (photo below):

Golden Jubilee stakes, Royal Ascot, Day 5 2007

Even though each race is over in a matter of seconds, it’s exciting to watch and cheer for “your” horse, and I have to admit I was glad not to be in the other parts of the grandstand, mostly because they looked so packed and crowded as to be uncomfortable. The lawn/concourse level of the Royal Enclosure, for example, had nice park benches spread out in a spacious way, and in contrast, the lawn in the grandstand area nearby looked packed with people sitting on blankets or crowded together by the fence.

There’s been criticism in the papers that the Royal Enclosure is now set up so attendees don’t have to mingle with the “regular” people in the other sections, but rather than taking a point of view (like this guy) on the rightness or wrongness of the Royal Enclosure’s exclusivity, I’m just stating a fact that it’s nice not to be in an overcrowded space.Queen’s Box at Royal Enclosure, Ascot

Overall, despite the gray, rainy weather yesterday, I had a great time at Ascot and would go again. In sunny weather, it’d be a perfect summer experience. And maybe next year, being the goal-oriented yuppie that I am, I’ll aim to be in the Queen’s box within the Enclosure:

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Windsor Castle, Round Tower

The Round Tower at Windsor Castle

Finally, after living in the UK for about 570 days, we ventured outside of London to see Windsor Castle, Queen Elizabeth II‘s weekend getaway.

Because I’m a train fan, there were only two options for reaching Windsor: a 1-hour direct train ride from Waterloo or a 1-hour ride from Paddington with a transfer at Slough (Office fans among you have heard of the unfortunately-named Slough). The latter doesn’t run on Sundays, so Waterloo, it was.

For £7.20 a person, you can get a “cheap same day return” ticket to Windsor Central Riverside station. The Southwest commuter trains that run to Windsor are clean, comfortable, and overall much nicer than the plastic-seated NJ Transit trains of my youth.

It was an easy ride into Windsor, and when we hopped off, we found ourselves on a busy, but still quaint, road called Dachet, and Windsor Castle loomed above. Because we’d packed a picnic lunch, we walked over the pedestrian-only Windsor Bridge in search of green patches to spread our blanket.

All we found across the bridge was the Eton boat house and a large, forlorn-looking grassy field that screamed “don’t picnic here.” I’m pretty sure I saw tumbleweed blow by.  So we turned around and headed back towards the Castle, which is so enormous that it took forever to walk around the perimeter to reach the tourist entrance.

I was amused to see the road circling the Castle walls was lined by chains of all shapes and sizes – McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Ben & Jerry’s and Thai Square, for example. There’s even what appeared to be a Medieval-themed shopping mall. I wonder what the Queen thinks. Does she go to McDonald’s? She’s probably grateful the Castle is surrounded by 4-meter-thick (high) stone walls.

After buying our tickets (£14.20 a person – yowsers) and making our way through security screening, we asked a guard where to picnic, and he suggested the delightful-sounding “Jubilee Gardens.”

Well, it turns out the Jubilee Gardens is a small, paved bandstand surrounded by a narrow strip of greenery and flowers. It’s right on the footpath visitors take to get from the ticket office to the main entrance of the Castle, which does give you the feeling you’re on display as part of the scenery.  Still, it was sunny and 50 F today, so we didn’t mind (too much) gorging ourselves in public on the paved bandstand.

Our free audiotour guided us through the few parts of the Castle that are open to the public.  Walking around, I could imagine how cold and tough it was to live in the Castle when William the Conqueror built the first part of the Castle, the Round Tower (see photo at top), in the early 11th century as a fortress.

Today, you know the Queen is in the house when the royal standard flies from the top of the Round Tower, as it did today.  The heavy, thick, stone walls studded with narrow slits (through which archers could blast out a few deadly arrows) didn’t conjure up warm and fuzzy thoughts, but the interior rooms, which are lived in and are therefore comfortable, do provide a big contrast to the Castle’s appearance from the outside.

When inside the Castle, the audiotour directs you first to see Queen Mary’s dollhouse. Another case of a misleading name. I thought it was a dollhouse given to Queen Mary when she was a child, but actually, it was given to her when she was an adult (an avid miniature-collecting adult). Weird. The dollhouse comes with real silverware, crown jewels and even vintage wine in miniature. Oh, and did I mention the electricity and working plumbing? No doubt it has a better heating and water system than my flat in London.

I enjoyed the photo exhibit of Elizabeth II’s life in the Castle’s Drawings Gallery, capturing her on film from infancy to the present. It’s easy to forget that the inflexible, reserved woman portrayed today has lived through some interesting times, including WWII during the Blitz, and these photos put her life in a context I’d never really considered.

The State Apartments were, as Jon says, “just like in any palace.” Lots of ponderous beds draped in heavy fabrics, Van Dycks, Reubens and throne rooms here and there, gilt-and-crystal everything; and china sets galore.

Windsor Castle Quadrangle

Quadrangle at Windsor Castle

For me, the interesting bits were the “spoils of war” from various colonies (e.g., a solid gold tiger from the throne of Tipu Sultan) as well as the pains taken to reconstruct parts of the Castle destroyed by a fire in 1992. In one grand room, the intricate wood-tiled floor was restored by removing each tile, flipping it over, and gluing it back down. Genius.While walking through the State Apartments, if you look out the windows, you get a nice view of the Quadrangle, which is a college-looking courtyard that looks too inviting to be left so empty of pedestrians. Alas, no visitors allowed on the Quadrangle. Queen only, I suppose.

Overall, Windsor is a nice place to visit, and I wish we’d had more time to walk around the pretty town streets. I might skip bringing a picnic lunch next time and just join the tourist hordes at the McDonald’s. It spares you the indignity of sitting out on a bandstand by the Castle entrance.

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South Front

The first sign that I have lived here too long is that I consider the weather to be a legitimate topic of conversation. We had three days in a row of gorgeous, sunny, 70-degree weather this weekend and today. It’s stunningly nice outside. I want to record this fact so I can remember it in a few weeks when we’re in the throes of darkest damp winter.

Anyway, this weekend was a lot of fun, though busy. On Saturday, Jon and I used the excuse of my mom and my aunt’s visit to visit Hampton Court Palace. We dragged Bobby, Cathy and Lauren along, too.

The Southwest train from Waterloo Station took just 35 minutes to reach Hampton Court, which for some reason I always imagined was really far out of London. Maybe all those Henry VIII stories talking about the “day’s journey” between London and the palace have skewed my perpsective.

So admission to the palace is a pricey £12.30 a person (what’s with the 30p?), but it’s worth the visit. You get an audioguide, which was pretty good, though they should really include Chinese!

The audioguide lets you choose three or four different tours, which makes sense once you see the palace. The building is more like three or four different palaces glued together haphazardly around a central square. I guess when you’re a royal, you don’t want to live in the rooms another royal lived in – maybe it’s like going to a party wearing the same dress as someone else.

We made the mistake of starting with the “Tudor Kitchen” tour. It’s interesting that the kitchens had to prepare around 1200 meals a day back in the 15th century. But I probably would have gotten more out of seeing the wing where George II and his wife Caroline lived, instead of staring at a huge fireplace where meat was roasted on a spit. [On the cool side, there was a real fire in the fireplace – try THAT at a major US tourist attraction. Can we say little-kid-gets-too-close = lawsuit-faster-than-you-can-say-ow?]

Jon’s two cents’ on the palace is that brick is insufficiently palace like, so he was not impressed by the Tudor part of the building. He wants all of you palace builders out there to know that you should use stone for the proper palace look. So he suggests modeling your palace on the south and east fronts of the palace, built by William and Mary. [I love this phrase “built by.” Can you picture William and Mary hauling those stones around?]


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