Friday, June 24, 2016

Tours times three

We're finishing up week 3 of our trip, and I thought I'd reflect on the 3 tours I took this past week.
The Good:   Bath
 Dom had made arrangements yesterday (6.23) to rent a motorcycle for the day, so I set off to the town of Bath, a short train ride from our hotel here in Bristol.    Immediately I knew I would enjoy this town, as I walked down this random pedestrian zoned street and was greeted by a rainbow of umbrellas.   Yes, umbrellas seem to be a necessary accessory as we've encountered more than a few rainy days since leaving the sunshine of Ireland (how's that for irony?).
Talk about eye candy window display:   Paddington, Beatrix and a scooter?  Swoon...
I had read about a free walking tour offered by docents from the mayor's office.   Free always works for me, and even more so three weeks into a holiday where we are finding England to be a bit on the pricey side.

I would spend a good 2.5hrs walking the streets of Bath, learning very interesting facts about how the discovery of the Roman baths in the 1700s, coupled with the business tactics of a man named Beau Nash, led to this town becoming popular with the aristocrats of the era.   To this day, there remains a certain aristocratic vibe to this town.

After the tour ended, I took a look around the Roman Baths for which the town gets its name.   If you are into Roman stuff, I'd say this one is pretty well preserved and described.   
  Martha's highly subjective tour rating:   3 stars.    The free tour, meant it was crowded (even with 3 guides, we had easily 20+ people in our group).   Our guide seemed to be more about the talk and less about the walk.   My feet don't do well with so much standing.   And in keeping with that aristocratic tone, I found the guide to be a bit too soft spoken when addressing a crowd as loud as our group, during the hustle-and-bustle of a business day in a tourist town.    But in the end, for the price I paid, it was worth the time invested.
The Great

Today, we woke up to read the headline from yesterday's historic elections.    The Times must have had to hit the print button before the final results were in, but it seems the citizens of Great Britain have voted to leave the EU.   I've not read enough about the pros-and-cons to offer much of an opinion (nor would I, politics aren't a topic I choose to express in my blog).   However, the Bristol community was very much for remaining in the EU, so the tone in the town seems palpably quiet.

Originally, Dom had thought he'd continue with his motorcycle ride, but his plans changed so he joined me on a walking tour I had located through Trip Advisor (HELLO?  what did travelers do before TA?)
 The tour is titled from Blackbead to Banksy and visitors are taken through the old town section of Bristol, where our guide, Duncan shares historical tidbits of the city...
 from the city's famed street art (seriously, look closely, that is chewing gum that someone has painted on Leonard Lane, an old Saxon alley now covered with assorted street art)

to the role Bristol has played in great literature
According to historians, it was at this pub, the Llandoger Trow, where author Daniel Defoe met Alexander Selkirk who would serve as the inspiration for that classic tale Robinson Crusoe.
 and even include plenty of general history...
The wooden ship across the harbor is a replica of the Matthew, the small ship used by John Cabot, who in 1497set sail for the new world, landing at Newfoundland

Martha's highly subjective tour rating:   4 stars.   Bristol is indeed "off the beaten path", not a single Japanese tourist toting a selfie stick has been spotted.   Our decision to visit was motivated purely by location and availability of motorcycle rentals that would allow Hubby to ride in both Wales and England with minimal seat/slab time involved.   This tour, and the quirky way about Bristol has made for a very relaxing few days.

The Amazing.
Sometime this past spring, I managed to get my hubby hooked on a show called Downton Abbey.
  As we binged through the series, he remarked "How come we can't visit the castle?"

  I pulled out the i-pad to show my doubting husband that the tours  of Highclere Castle (the real name for the castle used in the series)are limited (since it is still an actual residence to the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, George Herbert, and his wife, Lady Fiona Carnarvon).    

Imagine my surprise and  excitement when we noted that they had just announced additional tours for the month of June.   "Book it" we both decided.    The dates weren't a perfect match to our plans for travel, and the tour seemed pricey (100 pounds, on this one, go ahead and convert it to dollars, and double it, since by now, Hubby had become a fan, albeit not quite as crazed as myself, so we'd both be taking the tour)but close enough for us to make it work.  

When your day starts out at the Yew Tree Inn...
with Eggs Benedict served up with style...
You know you are in for a treat..
*for non-Downton fans, Yew Tree was the fictional name for the farm within the Downton estate that played a prominent role in a couple seasons.    I have since learned on our recent travels, that it is the Yew Tree that bends in an arch like branch, and is what results in the great tree archways we have driven under throughout our travels)
We were the first guests to arrive, and the lighting was darn near perfect according to my untrained eye, "not bad" according to the photographer I call Hubby...

Right at 10 o'clock, we were greeted by the docents and instructed to put away our cameras and our phones.   Trying to behave as a lady of Downton Abbey, I obeyed the instructions, as tempting as it was to snap a few pictures while unsupervised.

From there, the lady of the house, the Countess herself greeted us and welcomed us to her home.   She shared a bit of the history of her home and how it came to be that they chose her home for the series.   Seems she has had a friendship with the producer and the series may have been developed with this home in mind.   Throughout the tour, I certainly noted some similarities of the previous residents and some of the story lines of the show.    
Seems Highclere was indeed used as a hospital during the Great War, just like in the show
After the tour, we were served "snacks", which included a beautiful selection of tea and treats and even given a goody bag!  
We were then encouraged to visit the gift shop (don't mind if I do) and explore the gardens and the grounds...

  Seems the Egyptian Artifacts exhibit is popular with school groups.   Can you imagine the mommy chaperone cat fighting that would take place if our kids were headed to Highclere for a field trip?

  We would finish up our visit at Highclere with a private showing of the Egyptian Art Exhibit that the 8th Earl and Countess have opened, celebrating the discoveries of the 5th Earl, who in 1922 along with business partner Howard Carter discovered the tomb we all know now as King Tut!    

While most of what we saw were reproductions (seems the Earl's wife had to sell off many of the treasures to pay off debts incurred during the discoveries), it was a well done exhibit.

Martha's highly subjective tour rating:  5 stars!   What we learned, after the fact, was that we had scored some very special tickets to a relatively private tour of the castle.   Seems when they do open to the general public (only 50 some days a year), ropes go up, tour buses show up  with over 1000 visitors per day compared to our 45 or so, goodie bags don't occur, and that lovely tea we enjoyed?   Far from complimentary!  

 The guides and staff all commented how fortunate we were to be visiting on such a relative private event!   Even if you haven't seen the show, if you enjoy taking a peek into the past and see how the other side lives, this tour was well worth the time and the money!  

At this time, I've not made any plans for more tours during our final week in England.   I will say long as there is Trip Advisor, anything is possible!  

1 comment:

Andy & Laura said...

So glad for you that your tour of Highclere Castle was all you had hoped for and more. It sounds like a truly amazing opportunity you stumbled upon. Thanks for sharing the highlights.