After leaving Heathrow Airport in the early morning in our rent-a-car, we drove to Windsor, which is West of London, even further out than Heathrow itself. This is the home of Windsor Castle, which is a very impressive mound of stone, smack dab in the middle of the shopping district. We stayed in the MacDonald Windsor, which is within view of the castle walls. We never made it inside the castle, because I just wanted to wander up and down, and there were two more castles on our upcoming tour. But we did see the changing of the guard in full costume, starting at 10 am, in a procession marching to and fro, in front of our hotel, through the windows of the cafe next door.
I loved Windsor. Lots of others do too, apparently. It was full of tourists even when we were there.
A week later, at the time of the coronation concert, which was held on the Windsor Castle grounds, thousands descended on the area, while we were safely tucked away on the Isle of Wight. We heard about it a few nights later, when we returned to the hotel for our last night in the country before departing for the US.
My favorite spot in Windsor was on a little stone pedestrian bridge that goes over the Thames. It was a bit chilly (in the 60’s, mostly—chilly for us Floridians) but we sat on a bench despite the chill and watched the world go by. There were river boat trips you could take up to the racetrack and along the castle grounds, but we missed the boat because we arrived too late in the day.
We had a fantastic meal of Indian food to start off our England stay, and my poor husband longed for spicy food the rest of the time. We did go once more for Indian, in Hastings, I think. But there were none of the usual Mexican restaurants we know and love, that we could find. His craving for Mexican was so great by the time the tour finished, that our first meal when we came back home was burritos.
The food over all in England was very good. We had been told to expect less interesting food than we actually had.
We had to have tea and scones, so the next morning we went to a little shopping area with a gate that looked like a railroad station, all wrought iron and filled with sidewalk cafes. At the end of the lane, there actually was a train stop, where you could get on a train to London or where ever.
I was pretty timid in planning this trip, as I wanted to leave very little to chance (such as missing a train connection.) But if I went again, with a train station so close by, I would certainly have done more of our travel on rails.
On my trip to Germany thirty years ago, rail was the way to travel. I had a Eurail Pass for at least part of the trip (the Spring holidays, if I remember correctly.) I used it to go to Venice and Ravenna and Florence. I also took shorter trips from Wuerzburg, such as Munich and Hamburg and Aschaffenburg.
My travel in Germany was not confined to rails. Other trips were sponsored by the local Akademische Auslandsamt, which was a Foreigners Bureau for Academics (we were college students, after all.) These trips were periodically offered, and you could sign up for a mere pittance and then travel by bus ( or coach, as the British say) to Berlin or Cologne, for example, sometimes for days at a time, with the hotel and various tours also arranged for you. These were wonderful opportunities for the entire community of foreign students going to the University of Wuerzburg that year, to get to know one another.
When I think of those days, I wonder whether we have such programs at American Universities, to allow the visitors to our country to learn more about it in a safe way, and to have positive travel experiences. I was fortunate, in that I never felt like an undesired foreigner, although Americans in general during the time of Reagan were not that popular. Everything about that program, set up by the German American Friendship Club, made me feel at home and welcomed, in a way that I am not sure foreigners get to experience, in this country.
Back to Windsor. I loved the bridge, with its colorful comings and goings. People on holiday from every country, selfies being taken, boats going up and down, houseboats along the water, parked next to modern apartments, while a castle loomed in the distance. Restaurants pumping the heady perfume of grilled food into the air. Male students from nearby Eton, practically in prom gear by our standards, black and white suits with untied bow ties, open at their collars. It was a very lively place.
We walked all the way down to Eton, which was an open campus of impressive stone structures, chapels and dormitories all equally distinguished. We must have caught the break between classes, because so many young men were rushing to and fro. When we headed down the hill toward the bridge past dozens of shops, with shopkeepers standing close to the door to usher you in, we succumbed to the assault of a charming fudge purveyor and stopped in for a slab.
We stayed two nights at the MacDonald Windsor, with the majority of the first day being spent sleeping, because jet lag is cruel. The second day we ate dinner at the Ivy, also just a few doors down from our hotel. The restaurant, which it turns out, is a chain restaurant, was nonetheless very good. The decor is especially inviting, like a fern bar gone wild. The place is full of plants and botanical prints of plants, and even of a flamingo after Audubon I think. This print caught my eye from one of the walls, and I had to go in. They offer a tea in the afternoon which looked inviting, but we never made it back. For dinner we had shepherd’s pie and fish and chips and were introduced to that mysterious British substance, “brown sauce.”
Oddly, ketchup was pretty much never offered, mayonnaise being more common—even at a Burger King–to go with French fries, or “chips” as they call them. Potato chips, of course are “crisps,” to avoid any confusion. To anyone besides Americans, that is.
The fish was nearly always good and only once on the trip did I have fish and chips which were too oily or greasy for my tastes. Everywhere we went, the lamb was fantastic– as cute as those little lambkins were, that we passed on the country roads, and there were thousands of them, in April and May. I have never been a lamb-eating person, having only had it the way my Dad ate it, with mint jelly and a bit tough. But if you get a chance to eat it in England, do try it. It was a conversion experience.
The other wonderful thing about Windsor is how many charming pubs were within spitting distance of our hotel. Entering a pub like the Carpenter’s Arms —a great name, with a double entendre–you feel like you have gone back a century or more. Some of the pubs in the area were older than the castle, we were told. The beer was uniformly delicious, although occasionally it had grapefruit notes, and there were always lots of options to choose from. Most places hand-pumped the beer, rather than using a nozzle as we often see done in the States.
We learned quickly, that if you wanted service in a pub, you went to the bar. Sitting down gets you nowhere. You are expected to give your order, and stand and wait for your drinks, which you carry back to your seat. If you order food as well–and the variety or timing of food offerings in these places is often limited, although I understand Sunday Roasts are fantastic—they may bring it to you, where ever you are sitting.
We enjoyed a few beers at another pub just down the street from Hotel Windsor, with a very chatty barmaid who was great fun. We were cash poor and paying for everything by Apple Pay, but when it came to tips, that didn’t work so well. So we surreptitiously left American money in her jar, but before we left, she quizzed us, to make sure we didn’t have any English money to give her instead. We felt quite guilty for making her go through the hassle of changing the money herself, but it couldn’t be helped. Next time we’ll keep in mind the need for ready tipping cash!
I remember reading somewhere that 12% is a decent tip in a restaurant in England. That’s quite a bit less than we’re used to tipping(15-20% in the States) so that’s good to know, so you don’t let your generosity get the best of you. Also, many restaurants include gratuity on the check, so be sure to ask or check your receipt, before signing and adding yet another tip! I have also heard that its good to have them charge your bill in pounds rather than dollars, and let your own bank do the conversion to dollars. Sometimes, extra charges can be added, if the waiter or salesperson has to do this task.
The only other cash snafu in Windsor was on the day before we flew home. We were trying to gather together enough cash to tip, for our tour director and our coach driver. The brochure suggested a tip of ten pounds per day for the tour leader and five per day for the driver. Of course, we still only had American. We gave it to the coach driver with our apologies, since he had to leave our group early.
To take care of the tour leader, my husband used the ATM, but accidentally put in the wrong pin number and his card was rejected. He tried several times and eventually succeeded, but then a hold was placed on his card. We went to get a beer at the Carpenter’s Arms, five minutes away, and the card didn’t work. Fortunately, we had a second card. That is why it’s a good idea to have two with you!
We had told the bank before we left that we were going on a trip to England, and when, so they would be expecting charges from across the pond. But putting in the pin wrong was apparently a bridge too far. Luckily, it was still within business hours in the US. My husband straightened it out with a phone call. I sipped my beer while he did the dirty work. Good thing he straightened it out, because we had a flight to take the next day, and I hadn’t bought any souvenirs yet!
That’s about it for Windsor. The MacDonald Windsor itself was very nice and as I said before, right in the heart of things, mere steps from Windsor castle. The first night or two we were staying there on our own. The rooms are pretty small, as you would expect in a hotel with such a prime location, but that night we had a tiny double bed. For two large people like me and my husband, it was not very comfortable. My husband ended up falling asleep on the floor. There was also a slight problem when our cards stopped working on the hotel room door because of a computer glitch. That was quickly fixed.
But when we returned to the hotel the night before our tour began, five days later, and also, on the last night of our tour, spent in the same hotel, we had fabulous comfortable king beds and wonderful meals and a very attentive and helpful staff. I would happily stay there again, with the caveat that I would insist on a king bed.
After two days in Windsor, we got on the road south to Great Dixter, the garden where my daughter is spending a year on scholarship, learning the methods and practices used in Christopher Lloyd’s garden. Christopher Lloyd was garden writer of some renown, who championed a more naturalistic style of gardening. His house and grounds are now in the hands of a private trust and welcome visitors to the garden and offer tours of the house during the warmer seasons.
Fergus McGarrett, the head gardener for quite some time while Christoper Lloyd was still alive, now runs the property. He was off fund-raising in America when we came to visit, so we did not have the pleasure of meeting him. But he was kind enough to open the doors of the old Tudor house to us and allow us to sleep there for five nights, to be close to our daughter.
This was particularly convenient, since it is a little bit of a hike to the closest hotels, in Northiam or in Rye, in the South of England. We were able to make Dixter our home base for excursions in the area with our daughter, who was also generously granted time off.
I’ll tell you more about that in the next installment.