All the Queen’s Horses at Audley End House

This weekend, Audley End House re-opened its stables for the first time in about 60 years.  To celebrate, they reenacted a visit by Queen Victoria to inspect her troops with “All the Queen’s Horses”.  Having horse lovers in the family, we had to attend.

Unfortunately, the weather and the traffic did not cooperate well.  We had another one of those Arctic spells move in, so the skies were overcast for most of the morning and it was raining hard at times.  That made for a frustrating drive, as traffic always gets jammed through the Dartford Tunnel, even on a good day.

By the time we arrived, the rain had moved off, but the grounds were wet and muddy, and the skies were still overcast.  But the setting was so wonderful that I think we managed some good pictures regardless.  Essex and Cambridgeshire are truly beautiful counties.  You could almost forget that a road cut through part of the original estates of Audley End House.  Set in a valley with rolling hills around it and the river Cam in front, it was amazingly picturesque.

The English Heritage Society did a good job with putting together a show, and even though the turnout was low due to the weather conditions, the actors did not appear to grumble.  Army encampment tents were sent up on the grounds with the Corps of Drums of the HAC, the 17th Lancers and the Diehards Company giving talks and displays during the “Grand Arrival” and the “Grand Parade”.  Being a family event, they also had stalls for games for the kids.

Needless to say, we spent most of the time getting up close to the horses.  But, the wind picked up and it became quite cold.  Our younger daughter started fussing, so we decided to go indoors.  Unfortunately, it was too late to view the inside of the house, but the servants’ quarters were open.  You cannot but feel overwhelmed by the immense wealth of the aristocracy.

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Down House: Charles Darwin’s Former Home

Our English Heritage membership came up for renewal this month and what better way to celebrate than to take our first trip of the year to Down House, home of British scientist Charles Darwin.

Down House, Home of Charles Darwin
Down House

Down House is a little south of the village of Downe (the spelling of the village seems to have acquired its ‘e’ ending about the turn of the 19th century when still a Kent parish) and can be accessed by country lanes leading from the A21 or A233. It is a little off the beaten track and for us on this chilly February morning, the brown heritage signs on the roadsides provided better navigation aids than our Yahoo! driving directions.

The self-guided tour (using provided audio-visual devices and headsets) is divided in to two sections: the interior and the grounds.

The grounds include the gardens, a greenhouse, the barn (where usually there are active colonies of bees which, sadly – for us, not them – had been shipped out to warmer climes for the winter) and the remains of the tennis court. Extending beyond the gardens is a trail of about a mile known as the Sandwalk. Apparently, Darwin would walk this trail daily when taking a break from his work. Some nice views of the south-facing rear of the house can be had from the Sandwalk.

Inside the house is where this location comes in to its own. Much of the downstairs interior has been expertly restored to appear as it did during Darwin’s life (after Darwin’s death, the house was a private girls’ school, and later was given to the Royal College of Surgeons as a research facility before it was bought and restored by English Heritage in 1996.) Darwin lived at Down for 40 years, and wrote the full text of On the Origin of Species in its study.

With many original pieces of furniture and other items loaned from Darwin’s family or from private collections, the restorers have commendably created the look and feel of a lived-in Victorian house. From the decorative grand piano, slate billiard table, full Wedgwood dinner service (Darwin’s wife, Emma, was grand-daughter of Josiah Wedgwood the renowned potter; Darwin inherited the service from his mother, another of Josiah Wedgwood’s prolific progeny – the Darwin/Wedgwood tree is a little complicated, as you’ll see) down to pens and ink blotters, parlour games and distractions, maps and period magazines, it is all there offering a very vibrant feel of what it may have been like to live alongside the Darwins.

The upstairs is structured like a museum, with several rooms exhibiting artifacts, a games room where vital aspects of Darwin’s theories are described in games, videos and puzzles, and a room to rest in where children can dress up in period clothing.

This was a great half-day trip and we hope to return again in the summer to see the gardens in bloom.

The kids’ holiday is almost at an end.  Because it is so short, compared to what they are used to, we really had to take them to a lot of places to compensate.  Yesterday, was probably the most jam-packed day we’ve had. They wanted to go to Scotland and the Isle of Wight this year.  We already did Scotland and northern England (I have yet to write about it) and yesterday, we went to the Isle of Wight.

The weather forecast had said “sunny intervals”, which usually means a mix of sun and clouds.  We were supposed to have rain Monday and Wednesday.  Well, it didn’t rain on Monday.  It came in early Tuesday morning.  However, it cleared up by the time we arrived in the IOW.  Driving through the downs of West Sussex, however, the clouds were worrying.

We took one of those humongous car ferries over.  When you see the number of cars and lorries crossing, you think to yourself, “How in the world will all these get on there?”, but once you drive through, it looks a little like a multi-storey car park.  It also explains why it takes 40 minutes to cross the Channel.  The kids have been on boats before, but not on a ferry like this, so it was a new adventure.  It was quite windy sitting on the deck, so we moved inside.  The rain came and went, forcing people in and out, several times.

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Gardens at Osborne House

Our first stop of the day was Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s family retreat, now an English Heritage property.  Parking was free, even for nonmembers.  We didn’t see all of it, because we wanted to make our way around the island, but we could have stayed all day.  The house was absolutely wonderful, though many rooms were unavailable.  But, like many of these stately homes, you have to line up as you walk around all the open rooms.  You cannot just view things at your leisure, and it would have been difficult with so many people.  Although, I must say it was not as crowded as when we went to Windsor Castle over 10 years ago.  We also went inside the Walled Garden.  Though the blooms were on their way out for most of them, it was still very nice.  I loved being around the fragrant flowers, especially the lavender.  They had several kinds of apples and pears growing in alternate trellises.  The highlight of this garden was when I spotted a hummingbird.  It was so small I thought it was a large bee at first.  But it made no buzzing and as I approached I could see the fluttering of the wings as it flitted from flower to flower.  My husband took several pictures and I hope at least one turns out well.  It was very difficult keeping up with it.  We did not take the little carriage ride, nor visit the Swiss House or walk all around the grounds.  The views across the Solent were absolutely wonderful.  Parts of the ground have been given over to a golf club.  We also learned that as members, we could book a cottage on the grounds, but there is an 18 month to 2 year waiting list.  Wow!  Like we can ever plan that far in advance.

We took the main road that forms a ring around the island.  We did not stop in Yarmouth, though it looked like a very nice town to visit.  Instead we went on into Alum Bay.  That was a mistake in a way, but we learned for next time.  Alum Bay is very touristy.  That says it all.  We paid to park – not too bad if you planned to stay all day, but with “one price fits all”, it was not ideal for us.  From there you could walk up a steep hill and get a great view of the entire place, or even visit the old Battery at the end, which is now a National Trust property.  They have monopolised the area, so that if you are a member, or willing to pay, you could get in and get good views and good pictures.  The kids did not want to do much walking, so we went into the center of the little tourist hot spot, where they had amusements and shops.  We wanted to walk down to the beach, but the kids saw the chairlift and wanted to ride down on it.  It was again more money out (we always like to limit our expenditure on unnecessaries).  At first we couldn’t see a footpath to the beach (it was cleverly hidden).  On our way down the chairlift, we could see the path and it may have been arduous, but it looked like a nice walk.  Anyhow, the kids enjoyed the little adventure and the thrill as we made a steep drop down.  It was quite windy at the top (several people lost their hats) and they both got a little scared.  The view of the Needles as we rode on the lift was amazing, but we couldn’t get any pictures.  we were told there was not much beach because it was high tide.  There was very little room to move, but we saw the coloured sands of the cliffs – shades of red/pink/yellow/white/green.  After riding back up (we had a moment when the lift stopped and we were at the very top), my husband went on his own to the top of the hill and took some pictures, while I stayed in the car with the kids while they ate some hot soup.  I should mention that every time I passed the candy shop there, I could smell the candy.  They must make it on site.  I didn’t want to explore it because I know the kids would have wanted some, and we really have to cut down on their sweets.  Next time, we would park in the free car park in Totland and take the bus up to the top, explore, and walk back down into the town.  It would have been more of an adventure and encouraged the kids to do more physical exercise.  Of course, we would need better walking shoes.

The older one wanted a sandy beach to play on, so we drove on, enjoying the wonderful scenery of countryside and seaside as we went from the western edge to the southern tip and around to the east.  We stopped in Shanklin and they ran around the sand like crazy kids just released from bondage, making sandcastles and digging for treasure.  Despite the chilly wind and the late afternoon/early evening hours, I was surprised to find that the water was quite warm.  When we lived in New Hampshire, I don’t think the water ever got warm.  And, in England, I have found that the water may not be very cold, but I couldn’t describe is as warm.  Afterwards, they played in the amusements, had a bit of dinner and we were on our way again.

It was getting dark, but our ferry was leaving very late.  We stopped at Ryde and while the kids played on the sand, my husband took some night shots of Portsmouth, lit up across the channel.  Then we walked around the little paddling pond where they had swan boats and literally, dozens of swans making their residence.  The swans swam towards us as we walked (they must have hoped for food) and our younger daughter got scared.  She is easily frightened.  It didn’t help that we saw a big rodent walking along the edge of the pond, then running into the grass.  We also saw another rodent popping its head in and out of one of the holes in the grassy verge along the pond.  I wouldn’t want to be that person we saw sleeping in one of the benches.

We were tired but the kids wanted to continue playing on the sands. We debated waiting out for our ferry or arriving early and seeing if we could cross.  Either way, we’d be arriving home very late, but it was a two-hour difference.  We tried to call the ferry office, but they had just closed.  They allowed one free change of itinerary, but after that there was a small administrative charge.  We chanced it and arrived early.  We had no difficulty getting on.  This time, we were aboard a newer designed ferry with TV screens showing ads for the Isle of Wight. It seemed to help pass the time.  The kids were still playful, but by the time we got out of the port, they were asleep.  They were tired and a little sad that the little injured butterfly, that they picked up in the grounds of Osborne House and named Leopard and tried to revive with a piece of grape, finally died.  They had carried this butterfly all around with them all day and refused to let it go.  We reached home at about the same time we would have arrived at the port had we waited for our ferry.  We were exhausted and went directly to bed, after carrying the sleeping kids in, nearly 19 hours since I woke up.

We didn’t do everything we would have liked, but we had a little taste of what the island offered.  Next time, we’d need several days, possibly a week.

Ferries arriving at Dover from the ContinentFinally, we put our English Heritage membership into use this weekend. We joined when we visited Battle Abbey, but we have not used it otherwise. But, when it came to debating our options for fun this weekend, we chose to spend the money on fuel rather than entrance fees. So, we went to Dover.

Unfortunately, the Tower Keep at Dover Castle was closed for renovations. To make up for this, they offered tours of the Medieval Tunnels. We decided to tour the Tunnels ourselves, but we did join in the tour of the Secret Wartime Tunnels (which you cannot tour at your own leisure). This month is also “Tudor Month”, which meant they had some learning activities related to the Tudors and the Medieval era for children, though it was entertaining for adults, as well.

The views from the castle grounds across the Channel from the look-out posts were spectacular. You could see France in the horizon, though, as the day progressed, dark clouds over the Continent blurred the vista. Aerial views of Dover Castle and the White Cliffs were inaccessible to us, however, so we had to content ourselves with a small side view of the cliffs. There were numerous ferries coming and going to the Continent.

The ruins of the Roman lighthouse still stand next to the restored Saxon church, which was deceptively spacious. I’ve been inside many large churches and found that the interior was quite small, possibly because of the construction of pillars and such on the inside. This church was relatively plain and the pews were pushed up against the walls, so it gave a more open atmosphere. Unlike the plain stone walls of Norman churches, these were tiled and painted in different designs (some looking rather Byzantine).

The Medieval Tunnels were on three different levels. On the first level, there was a spot, over which a grate protected the unwary visitor, where you could look down to the bottom. Yet, we never reached that spot when we went down the stairs, so I have no idea where that tunnel was. There were several dead ends and blind spots, not to mention the requisite spiral staircases. Perfect inspiration for a gothic romance, if I ever get to the point of writing one.

The Secret Wartime Tunnels were definitely worth a visit. To imagine a large group of people living and working in such a close, confined environment seems incredible to us now. And, if the sample foods they had on display were indicative of their diet, it’s no wonder they managed to stay skinny back then. The tour began with a 10 minute video about the tunnels and the Dunkirk rescue as well as D-Day landings. How appropriate that we went this week-end. (How appropriate also that Henry Allingham turned 113 this week-end – we thought about sending him a card.) The tour guide made our Buppa 2nd in command, though she wouldn’t open her mouth to talk to him. Photography was not allowed, he stated at the beginning. Then, later he left us alone in the operation theatre saying he would be out for 20 seconds. When he returned, he warned that photography was not allowed in his presence. At the end, we were left to finish the tour at our leisure, where we could look into the telephone/telegraph/control rooms. Everything appeared in very good order, although he did tell us that the elevator was dodgy (a post-war addition). We were informed that there are parts of the tunnel that remain undiscovered since it was abandoned after the war. These must have been behind some locked doors because I could not appreciate any obvious secret passages. Oh, by the way, there is a quiz on how many steps on the spiral staircase. The answer is 72, though I counted 71 and my husband counted 73. We’ll have to do that again another time.

It was on way back from Hastings after buying a piano for our daughter that we drove into Battle and saw the abbey, which we thought was some castle.  We thought of coming back, so after Christmas we made a trip to Battle and saw that it was really an abbey and it was featuring a children’s quest.  Because it was getting late, we decided to come back the next day and spend more time there. 

The next day, upon entering the shop, we were accosted by the greeter, who turned out to be a canvasser/solicitor for the English Heritage Society.  We had already decided that we needed to compare the English Heritage with the National Trust and join one after the new year.  Well, he proceeded to talk up the English Heritage and in the end, we joined.  We figured that we would probably fully enjoy its benefits within the next year.  There are many places we want to see.  It is only a matter of finding the time to enjoy them.  Of course, this winter, it will be difficult to enjoy any place that focuses on external viewings.

Unfortunately, the day was rather cold and despite all our advice, our younger daughter insisted on wearing a skirt and her new shoes, which were appropriate for going to church, but not for walking on muddy trails.  By the end of the day, she was complaining and crying because her feet were cold and hurting.

The displays at Battle Abbey were educational for all, but they also had an audio guide that can be heard in adult version or child version.  The former cloisters were closed.  They had been converted into a school.  We will have to make a second trip to fully enjoy the abbey, since we were unable to view everything that cold day.

Despite all her crying, once we were back in the shop, our daughter resumed her enthusiasm for shopping, and she had to buy souvenirs for everybody.  Because we know that even with the best intentions, our impulsive actions can prove to be our downfall, we need to start planning some family outings at these English Heritage sites.