Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The White Cliffs of Dover

363 miles. 6 hours and 24 minutes of driving.

That was the plan.

Actually, it was the back-up plan.

The original plan was to fly from Long Beach, California to Boston Massachusetts on the red eye, then spend the night in Boston. After a good night’s sleep, get a late check-out and head to Logan Airport for the flight to Heathrow Airport in London.

By breaking up the long flight into two days, I thought we would be able to land in London and maybe head over to Stonehenge before checking into the hotel.

Unfortunately, a little miscalculation had us on two red eye flights with about a 10-hour layover in Boston. Since hotel check-in is usually about 4 pm, we didn’t have any chance to get some much-needed sleep.

By the time we landed in London, picked up the rental car and drove to Oxford, we were beat.
We had tickets for an Oxford River Cruise on Thursday, a Friday appointment for a tour of Buckingham Palace and the London Tower tour.

Since we were moving to a hotel in the Midlands on Sunday, that left only Saturday for two of the locations on my bucket list, Stonehenge and Dover Castle.

We got up early, had a good breakfast and headed to Stonehenge.

After touring Stonehenge, we jumped in the car just before lunchtime and made the mad dash to Dover.

About three hours later, we arrived at the port of Dover.

As we drove past the port, Dover Castle dominates the view. It is, to say the least, impressive. I do have to admit, it is the first proper castle I have ever seen in person.

The closest would have to be the Old Port at Dubrovnik, Croatia or the Old Town of Rhodes, which are fortifications, but I don’t think that they count as “castles.”
The City of Dubrovnik, Croatia

 We parked in the free parking area (after the ticket in Oxford, I like free parking {see my entry “Sorry You Got the Wrong Numbers” to understand more).

It was a short walk downhill to the visitor’s center. We had our English Heritage 9-day pass, so we just checked in, grabbed a map and were on our way.

We headed downhill to the entry for the tunnel system under the castle. We joined the group waiting for the tour of the tunnels used by the British Navy during World War II.

It was from the command center deep under the castle that the British orchestrated the evacuation of Dunkirk and later in the war, was the headquarters of the fictitious 1st US Army Group (FUSAG), supposedly commanded by General George Patton.

That ruse convinced the Germans that the invasion to liberate France would take place in the North and cleared the way for the D-Day landing in Normandy.

We took the tour for Operation Dynamo, the rescue of some 338,000 Soldiers from almost certain capture by the Germans at Dunkirk.

From the official description of the tour:

“Spitfires screech overhead and the boom, boom of anti-aircraft guns resonate while you feel the danger and desperation in the cramped tunnels. Vivid sets and original film give a graphic account of the horror of the French beaches under fierce enemy fire. It was here that Ramsay plotted and planned his brilliant operation, issuing the orders and making the decisions that saved so many lives.
The tour continues through some of the original rooms of the adjacent Army HQ. Dressed as they were throughout Second World War, they include the Gun Operations Room, Telephone Exchange, Repeater Station (communications room) and Coast Artillery Operations Room.”

Being an old Army vet and a history nerd, I found the tour to be very interesting.

Then came the tough part. We had been walking downhill, from the parking lot to the visitor’s center, to the tunnel entrance, and even lower thru the tunnels. Now we had to walk back up.

Officers New Barracks about 1/2 way back up to the parking lot

Oh yeah, and the Castle is above the parking lot.

So we started slowly back up, and up, and up. Finally making it to the gate of the castle.

Passing into the keep thru the Palace Gate, I found myself alone in the inner courtyard. As I walked around the keep, I tried to imagine what the courtyard would have been like during the reign of Henry II.

But instead of the sounds of a bustling royal court, there is nothing but the flags on the keep, snapping in the harsh winds.

I decided to go ahead and make the climb to the top of the keep. Inside the corner tower, there is a long stone spiral staircase that leads to the roof.

Not being in my prime physical condition, it was a bit of a climb. Twenty years ago, I would have probably run up the stairs, but today, it was a calm paced walk.

On top the views were spectacular, even if the wind did threaten to blow me off the building.
I only had time for a quick walk thru the great hall and kitchen areas before the castle closed for the day.
The Roman Pharos and Church of St Mary-in-Castro taken from the top of the keep

Here is a 360 degree video of my visit.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

It's a Posh, Posh, Traveling Life, Traveling Life for Me

Back in the 1980’s, I had the pleasure of being one of the first employees at the brand-new Ritz Carlton Hotel in Rancho Mirage California. 

I had just moved back to the state after spending a year in Massachusetts after my discharge from the active component of the US Army. 
I had applied for a job at the Ritz in Boston, but I didn’t do well on the interview. I did well, but I stumbled when we were talking about dealing with high end guests. 
Oddly enough, my ability to tear into the hide of junior soldiers in need of a course correction, using long strings of carefully sourced expletives, was not seen as a force multiplier in the luxury travel sector. Go figure.
I did, however, find my first job in the luxury travel sector at the Hotel de Layfette in downtown Boston. The department head that hired me had been a US Army military police officer. 
I learned a lot during that brief time, enough that when I interviewed for the position at the Ritz in Rancho Mirage, I didn’t make the same mistakes as before.
Working for the Ritz Carlton changed the way I thought about travel. In my younger days, price was the sole motivation for where I stayed. After Boston and Rancho, I understood that sometimes paying a little more for service was worth the cost. Sometimes. 
I’m still a bit uncomfortable staying in truly “posh” accommodations, but sometimes it can be very enjoyable. 
Which brings me to the Langley in Buckinghamshire, England.
I was looking for a hotel near Heathrow Airport (but not too near) for our last night in England. When I saw the picture of the front of the Langley, I had to stay there. 
The front of the Langley Hotel

Turns the hotel was under renovation and it hadn’t opened when I reserved our room, but it had been open for about three months before we arrived.
The best way to describe the hotel and grounds are breathtaking. Several employees were able to shed some light on the history of the site, but I did some digging and found a bit more, but not much. 
The development of the site goes back to the 1700’s when Charles Spencer, the third Duke of Marlborough constructed a hunting lodge on 150 acres in the Iver countryside. In 1758, he commissioned Stiff Leadbetter to build a new manor home on the site, which I believe is part of the hotel.
It seems that the historic property fell into a bit of disrepair, there is mention of it being inhabited by bats, but after a multi-million six-year restoration, it has opened as a luxury resort managed by the Marriott Corporation.
The property sits alone in the middle of Langley Park, which makes the drive in feel like your arriving at the palace. 
View of the hotel from Langley Park

We arrived on a rainy afternoon and were met by the bell staff, armed with umbrellas they made sure we made it to the lobby as dry as possible. 
The lobby area is just amazing. I can’t remember ever taking pictures of the front desk area while checking in.  
Sitting area in the lobby
Our room was in the front of the property, on the second floor. Unfortunately, there is no elevator for that part of the hotel (of course the bell staff brought the bags up, so a little extra tip for the effort was in order).
The bedroom was large, with some of the nicest furniture I have seen in a hotel, with a big fluffy bed that made you want to just stay in all day. 

There was a good size living room, with plenty of space. 
The living room
I do have to say, my favorite part of the room was the bath. I think every hotel bath should have heated floors and towel racks. 
The bath featured heated floors and towel racks
We only ate dinner at the hotel, and to be honest, we felt that we were too under-dressed to go into the main dining room. We ate in the lounge, the tables were a bit awkward for dining, but the food was fantastic.
The Lounge
I’m really sorry that we only had one night at the Langley, I would have liked to stay longer.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Manor at Minster Lovell

­Before I left on my first ever trip to England, I spent a great deal of time researching what to do while I was there. I knew that I would only have nine days, and wanted to see as much as possible, without trying to cram in so much fun, that I ended up burning out.
I knew that I wanted to see the ancient stone array at Stonehenge. Even though it consistently makes the list of overrated tourist sites, and my own brother described his visit as “meh.”
When I went to buy advance tickets to Stonehenge, I came upon the English Heritage Foundation Website.
As I looked at the 400 or so sites under the care of English Heritage, I became aware of the ruins at Minster Lovell. Looking at the photographs I penciled it in as a stop while we were staying in Oxford.
View of the Church at Minster Lovell looking thru the ruins 

Reading more about the site, I learned that the first manor house at Minster Lovell was built around the 12th century, but the ruins that remain to this day are from the 1430’s when William, Baron of Lovell and Holand returned after the French Wars. He had become one of the wealthiest men in England and the manor was built to show his wealth.
William’s grandson, Francis became the 9th Baron of Lovell. His father had fought in the War of the Roses on the side of the House of Landcaster, however Francis was raised as a Yorkist, and was appointed Viscount Lovell by Richard III.
With the rise of the Tudors and the defeat of the House of York, the manor passed to the hands of the Crown.
The manor house
In 1602, Sir Edward Coke gained control of the manor. His descendant Thomas Coke resided in the manor from 1721 until 1728 and assumed the title Lord Lovell of Minster Lovell.
The hall would be abandoned in the 1730’s in favor of the family holdings in Holkham, Norfork, and most of the buildings dismantled for the building stone.
The nearby church and cemetery are still in use, but the manor is in ruin.
The Church and Cemetery
That said, I wish we had made it to the site earlier, the ruins make for wonderful images.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Sorry You Got the Wrong Numbers

In an earlier post I mentioned the trials and tribulations of driving to Oxford for a little day trip. Driving was interesting, but I knew better than to drive into the city center.

Which is how we found ourselves standing in front of an automated parking fee kiosk.

Fortunately, we were in England and the instructions were seemingly easy to understand. It seemed.
We were instructed to enter the license number of the rental car into the machine, then insert a credit card for payment. The cost to park was only £4.80 or a little less than $6, for someone who is used to paying for parking in LA that’s almost free.

The only issue was we were parked in the far corner of the parking lot and I didn’t really feel like walking back to the car. But I looked at the key fob for our trusty rental and noticed that there were several numbers on it.

Not being familiar with the alpha-numeric complexities of British license plates, I paused – staring blankly at the three possible solutions for our issue.

I figured the one set of numbers that was bold must be the license plate numbers. I entered it into the machine. After a second it spit out my receipt and we were on our way.

We proceeded into Oxford and had a very nice day.

At the end of the day we returned to the Park and Ride. As we approached our car, I noticed something taped to the front windshield directly in front of the driver’s seat.

I had gotten a ticket.

Now, I like to think that as I age, I’ve gotten a little better and controlling my temper. Not that day.
I angerly removed the ticket without opening up the clear plastic envelope. I tossed it into the back seat and got behind the wheel for our return trip to the hotel.

Hours later, and after dinner and more than one glass of wine, I opened the “ticket.”

How very British.