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Vacation Recap: England, Part 1

I've finally managed to sort through the hundreds of photos I took of our recent trip and I thought I'd share some of my favorites here on the blog. I recognize that sharing the web-equivalent of a lengthy slide show of family vacation photos isn't exactly exciting stuff -- or really what this blog is about. But bear with me and I'll try and keep things lively and, in the interest of not boring you to tears, I'll be splitting the trip up into 3 separate posts, interspersed throughout next week with posts on my usual design blather.

Day One. Dave and I arrived to London Heathrow very early Thursday morning without incident. We staggered around the city until our hotel room was ready, whereupon we promptly fell asleep for 5 hours straight, awaking only for a brief dinner and it was back to bed.

Day Two. Friday morning we got up bright and early for our day trip out to Kent, a county in southeastern England just a short distance from London. My grandfather's family hailed from county Kent and, like many of their Puritan brethren (Kent was a hot bed for so-called Round Heads), emigrated to New England in the mid-17th century to escape religious persecution. As far as I know, I'm the first member of the family to step foot in the motherland since.

I saw our trip to Kent (my first despite a half dozen or more trips to the United Kingdom) as something of a homecoming. And I was pleasantly surprised by how lovely the county is, which is marked by gently rolling hills and lush gardens. Historically the breadbasket of England, Kent's chief cash crop is now lavender -- and I think that fact accurately sums up my impression of the area: simply lovely.

Our first stop in Kent was Leeds Castle, a picturesque castle sitting astride two small islands in a lake. The original palace dates from the 12th-century, but was modernized and expanded by Henry VIII for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. When Henry divorced Catherine after twenty-some odd years of marriage, it was here that Catherine spent the remainder of her life, virtually a prisoner.

While a few rooms in the castle retain much of the look and feel of the Tudor period, most of the castle bears the hallmark of the last private owner, Lady Baillie -- and her decorator, Stephane Boudin. Boudin was the decorator of choice for another famous lady, Jackie O. and he, together with Sister Parish, redecorated and refurbished the White House for the Kennedys. Interestingly enough, many of the carpets at Leeds are the same ones as those Boudin used in the White House and, while they have long since been removed from the White House, remain in pristine condition at Leeds.

Perhaps most magnificent though are the gardens and grounds at Leeds, which include a number of gardens, ponds, a maze, a grotto and even a golf course. We were very lucky to arrive in late spring as the gardens were in full bloom with roses, wisteria, tulips and all manner of gorgeous flowers. I could have spent a lovely afternoon reading (and dozing) quietly on the grass, but it was quickly time to get back on the bus to continue our tour of Kent.

From Leeds we drove down to Dover to take a look at the white cliffs, where the RAF would take off for France and Germany during the Battle of Britain. The only evidence of which are the many bunkers and tunnels hidden along the cliffs, the first line of defense to protect London (and the rest of Britain) during the Blitz. We then headed to Canterbury, to see the great cathedral. While Canterbury has great historical and ecclesiastical importance for the Church of England, I'll admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by the architecture. Indeed, there are far grander churches in England. Nevertheless, the town was lovely and we had a great meal of cider and meat pies at a local pub before heading to Greenwich and then back to London via a boat on the Thames.

Day Three. On Saturday I was determined to make it out to Notting Hill to see the market on Portobello Road. Unfortunately, the weather was awful. Despite that, we spent a lovely morning strolling the markets where there were all manner of interesting curiosities and collectibles. Vintage cameras? Check. Antique bugles? Check. Old wooden tennis rackets? Check. I'd say the real strength of the market though is china and silver (unsurprising given that it's England), neither of which I have tremendous interest in. Ultimately nothing really struck my fancy and so we left empty-handed, though we still really enjoyed the search.

Tip: If you find yourself on Portobello Road (or anywhere near it) run, don't walk, to The Hummingbird Bakery. I'd heard about the cupcake mecca through my sister, who has their cookbook (which is excellent -- the Nutella cupcakes are heaven) and when I saw it I immediately insisted we go in and try a few. Incredible.

After leaving Portobello Market in early afternoon (the weather was getting worse and worse), we headed indoors to the Imperial War Museum (which is -- fun fact -- housed in the old Bedlam Hospital). In addition to housing some incredible examples of WWI and WWII aircraft, tanks and guns, the museum also has some incredibly moving exhibits on the two world wars. (By the way, Dave is standing next to a chunk of the Berlin wall.) What strikes me as mind boggling is how recently these events occurred. Not too get too heavy here, but as a member of generation Y I find it hard to fathom how events like the Holocaust happened less than 70 years ago -- less than a lifetime. I also find it hard to believe how much England has changed in the interim. From the strict rationing of the post-war era to today, where the English are perhaps rivaled only by Americans in their disposable income and consumerism.

We wrapped up day 3 with a wonderful meal at St. John, a restaurant in up-and-coming Smithfield that prides itself on its "nose to tail" cooking. Not for the squeamish diner, St. John is nevertheless a fantastic restaurant, distinctly English and not to be missed. If you're not going to be in London anytime soon, check out their cookbook, which is available on Amazon.

Next up: Our tour of London wraps up with a day trip to Hampton Court, a tour of the Inns at Court and some Wicked fun.

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