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Although I was sincerely sad to see Langley Castle fade from sight as our taxi drove away the next morning, more glorious days were ahead of us--and another country awaited our arrival. After a short and scenic train ride to Edinburgh (pronounced "Edin-bur-uh"), we checked into our guest house at the top of Castle Street, from which we enjoyed a bird's eye view of Edinburgh Castle, seen in this photo. The gigantic castle (larger than it looks here) is seated on a rocky crag and towers over the city below. During our stay in Edinburgh, we walked the historic Royal Mile and did quite a bit of shopping for Scottish souvenirs and cashmere (less expensive than in the States). After finding both of my heart's desires--a black cashmere scarf and black cashmere sweater set--my cup of contentment was full.

The next day, we caught yet another train to Glasgow, where we met one of Tara's friends from the Virtual Tourist site. A perfect example of Scottish hospitality, he had agreed to drive us around western Scotland (since we didn't have a car). Our grand tour included a trek around the bottom and up the west side of Loch Lomond, up into the Highlands, over the top of Loch Lomond through the Trossachs, and into some of the charmingly tiny Highland villages. The Highlands (shown in this photo) are more wild and barren than I had imagined, but breathtaking in their
untamed ruggedness.

The following day, we rented mountain bikes in Drymen, the little village near Loch Lomond where we were staying, and cycled to Buchanan Castle. Since we are Buchanans on my mother's side, Tara and I had spent a considerable amount of time researching our ancestry and had managed to trace it back to this castle. (In fact, all of the land east of Loch Lomond used to be the territory of Clan Buchanan.) Here are Tara and I standing in front of the castle--although a pure ruin, with trees growing out of its windows and ivy covering the loose stone bricks, it was wonderfully picturesque...and, of course, more meaningful to us than it would have been to others.

Before leaving the next morning, we had our picture taken in front of the Buchanan Arms Hotel, our lodgings in Drymen (most of the places around there--and many in Glasgow, as well--were named after the Buchanans). A former coaching inn that was once owned by the Buchanans, it was extremely elegant--excepting, perhaps, the carpet in the hallways...the Buchanan tartan. :) The hotel's restaurant (Tapestries) was also quite impressive; I enjoyed a delectable mushroom ragout for dinner.

After traveling back to Glasgow (a city I'd like to visit again), we began the return trip to London. Although the ride lasted almost six hours, the train traveled down the west side of England (rather than the east side, which we had seen coming up), so we were treated to more views of the countryside (including the area just east of the Lake District). After checking into our hotel (this time in Victoria, near Buckingham Palace), we took the tube to the Tower of London, where we watched the Ceremony of the Keys. The ceremony has been held in the tower every night for 700 years (even during both world wars). Although the beefeater telling us the story was wonderfully jocular, the ceremony itself was impressively somber. A very evocative experience.

The next day, we took the tour of Westminster Abbey that I mentioned earlier and spent about five hours at Harrods in Knightsbridge (and I still wasn't able to see everything!). This picture of the exterior can't even begin to illustrate how massive (or luxurious) this store is--it far surpassed my expectations. The dazzling Egyptian escalator gallery was particularly impressive. The restaurants and food halls were also tempting...at the creperie, I had a fresh mozarella and tomato crepe, and we later snacked at Max Brenner's chocolate bar, where I sampled the chocolate, coconut, and banana smoothie--I'd died and gone to heaven! Our evening ended with a performance of The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty's Theatre. While it was thrilling to see the original production of my favorite show, I was a bit disappointed in the performance--the theatre was tiny (even when compared to those in NYC), and the actors were rather weak. Still, the music was glorious, and the experience was unforgettable.

On Sunday, May 26, we again attended church services on Ossulton St. and then went straight to the Treasures collection at the nearby British Library. The history contained in those walls is simply amazing! My favorites were handwritten manuscripts of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and Jane Austen's Persuasion, handwritten lyrics to several Beatles songs, the Gutenberg Bible, and a Mozart quartet manuscript (the "Dissonant" Quartet, for anyone who's interested). Later that day, we took a double-decker bus ride to St. Paul's Cathedral, where we snapped this photo. I would have loved to see the inside, but it was closed for the evening. Again, the building's awe-inspiring size is larger than it appears in pictures.

We then took the tube (again) to the Tower of London, since it had been too dark to take pictures on Friday night. We didn't take the tour or see the Crown Jewels that are housed inside the tower; but even from the outside, the building in which such agony was endured (often undeservedly) inspires a bit of terror.

Finally, we walked over beautiful Tower Bridge, seen behind me in this photo. Looking south down the Thames from the bridge, we could see London Bridge, as well--considering its notoriety, it's not nearly as architecturally impressive as Tower Bridge. But then, few sites in London are!

Walking back to our hotel that evening, we paused to take in the glory of the Parliament buildings at night. Although we didn't have a tripod, my mom poised her camera on the railing of Westminster Bridge and took this photo through the bars. Considering the conditions, I think it's quite good!

On Monday, we hopped on a southbound train and arrived in Maidstone, Kent, where we courageously rented a car. My dad did all the driving, and while the "left-side thing" was stressful, we avoided all collisions. From Maidstone, we drove a short distance to Leeds Castle, often called the "loveliest castle in the world"--and perhaps that's not an exaggeration! Here are Tara and I in front of some vibrantly colored azaleas just off the pathway to the castle--and these weren't even part of the formal gardens!

Here's a nice shot of the castle itself. The grounds are seemingly never-ending and all impeccably manicured. During our visit, we had tea and scones in their elegant tea room, almost got lost in their surprisingly challenging yew maze (we finally figured it out, after long minutes of aimless wandering), and were awed by their underground grotto (constructed entirely of shells, stones, and other natural materials). From every angle, both the castle and the grounds are a feast for the eyes!

After touring the inside of the castle, we visited the aviary (containing an impressive variety of exotic birds) and the expansive gardens. Here I am in the Culpeper Garden (named after a family that once owned the castle). It was perhaps the most beautiful garden I've ever seen--and definitely the epitome of the traditional
"English cottage garden."

From Leeds, we drove a short distance to Peasmarsh, East Sussex, where we finally found this remote home--Hayes Farmhouse, where we stayed that night. The ancient farmhouse was exquisitely furnished, yet with a deliciously homey feel. The house has only three guest rooms, and we didn't even see any of the other guests that evening--as a result, we felt like we were staying in someone's private home, and our hostess (Julia Sebline) couldn't have been more gracious. The dinner that she served us in our "private" dining room was another jamboree for the taste buds. After dinner, Julia made us a fire in the sitting room, where we relaxed with coffee and books.

The next morning, we took a leisurely walk all around the gorgeous countryside surrounding Hayes Farmhouse. This is the view directly across the road from Hayes. The tiny house you see in the distance was actually a grandiose country estate--if you use that as a reference point, you'll get a sense of the land's expansiveness. This area contained some of the most impressive natural beauty that I saw during our trip.

After regretfully saying goodbye to Julia, we drove to the nearby seacoast village of Rye and checked into our B&B before departing for Sissinghurst Castle Garden, only a few miles away in Kent. Although it rained for the majority of our visit, the garden was just as beautiful as I had imagined--and, due to the dampness, not as crowded as I had feared. This view almost took my breath away with its beauty; the cascading flowers on the left are wisteria, and their scent was as heavenly as their blooms.

After climbing the tower (one of the few remnants of Sissinghurst Castle), we took this overhead shot of the garden. The pruned hedgerows are especially impressive from this vantage point. I can only begin to imagine how much work goes into the maintenance of this stunning garden!

On our way back to Rye, we stopped briefly at Bodiam Castle--although a ruin inside, the exterior is still lovely--and finally settled into our rooms at Jeake's House, shown in this photo. Located on one of Rye's historic cobbled streets, the B&B was beautifully decorated, even though it showed signs of its ancient history (most of the wood-plank floors were uneven, and my bed was at a slight slope!).

While browsing Rye's shops the next day, we ran into this quaint greengrocer's storefront. The fruits and vegetables were some of the freshest I've seen (strawberry fragrance was continually wafting down the street), and due to England's unusual climate, they were apparently untouched by any insects. After touring Rye, we took a drive along the coast to Winchelsea Beach--incredibly windy, but with sheep grazing right up to the borders of the rocky beach. Our coastal drive also included sightings of Hastings, Bexhill, and Eastbourne.

One of our last meals in England was at this charming "free house" just outside Rye--Peace and Plenty. Both the inside and outside looked too quaint to be real, but our taste buds testified to the reality of the place. My dinner consisted of garlic mushrooms, broccoli and stilton soup, and a delectable concoction called toffee crunch--more like a white and milk chocolate ganache torte. A splendid way to cap off our trip!

The next day (May 30), we drove to Tunbridge Wells, a London suburb with both historical interest and a modern edge. We strolled the Pantiles (a stretch of shopping that was popular among aristocrats in the 18th century), sampled mineral water from the ancient Chalybeate Spring, and did some window shopping on High Street. After driving back to Maidstone to drop off our car, we caught the next train to London, where we checked into our original hotel on Bedford Place. All we had time for that night was a brief tour of the British Museum (I've seen the Rosetta Stone!) and a leisurely dinner at Porter's English Restaurant in Covent Garden, where I had a wonderful veggie pie with puff pastry. The next morning, we fought the crowds on the tube and arrived at Heathrow in plenty of time to catch our return flight to O'Hare. The dream was over, but the memories would last a lifetime--and I'll definitely be going back soon. Hail Britannia!


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