Ancient Rome’s Line in the Sand
Where Roman legions once marched, sheep now peacefully graze along the remaining sections of a dividing wall that was constructed some 1,800 years ago as a political statement and no-nonsense proof of power to the contentious Scots.
The demarcation line for Rome’s northernmost border of a mighty empire that stretched 2,500 miles east to what is now Iraq and named after the 2nd-century Roman emperor (a.D. 76-138) who ordered its construction, Hadrian’s Wall was built by some 18,000 soldiers and indentured slaves. Originally consisting of 800,000-odd bricks, it spanned 73 miles from Bowness-on-Solway in the west (beyond Carlisle) to Wallsend in the east (beyond Newcastle). Work was begun in A.D. 121 during a visit by Hadrian following repeated invasions from the north and was abandoned in 383 as the Roman Empire crumbled.
The best-preserved remaining chunk, a 10-mile stretch in Northumberland north of England’s much-visited Lake District, is Britain’s largest classical ruin, and one of northern Europe’s most impressive and important. Set up camp in the nearby Langley Castle Hotel; built in 1350, it is far younger than Hadrian’s Wall, but its turreted 7-foot- thick walls and original medieval stained- glass windows and spiral staircases still evoke a fascinating sense of history. Close to Northumberland Park, Hadrian’s Wall, and a number of ancient Roman forts built as auxiliary garrisons, Langley is a pocket of contemporary luxury dressed in medieval clothes.
A Civilized Ritual Steeped in Tradition
Ante of kings and commoners alike, tea is taken in every little hamlet across the British Isles. But nowhere is it served with more reverence or flair than at the Ritz, the grand old-world icon that sets the standard for Britain’s most sacrosanct tradition. The quintessentially British rite can be traced back more than 150 years, to Anna, Seventh Duchess of Bedford, who would suffer from fainting spells from late-afternoon “pangs of hunger,” and—well, the rest is history. Purists swear by the Ritz, whose dazzling Versailles-inspired setting (and queues) provide an unforgettable glimpse of life at the top. (Brown’s and Claridge’s run neck- and-neck for second place.)
Promising as much pomp and circumstance as the changing of the guard, the etiquette and rules of afternoon tea appear at their stylized best in the Ritz’s rococo Palm Court: tables are draped in crisp linen tablecloths and covered with fine bone china and a silver triple-tier stand of goodies. Dainty finger sandwiches complement warm scones, homemade strawberry jam, and clotted cream, as well as an array of bite-size tea cakes and fancy sweets that permit the pastry chefs to show off their talents. Finish it all and you’ll understand why the thought of dinner is enticing—only if it’s tomorrow’s.
Since its creation by the great impresario Cesar Ritz in 1906, stepping into the Palm Court is like stepping back into Edwardian England—especially following renovations that have freshened up the grande dame’s over-the-top gilt-and-mirrors glamour. They’re not exaggerating when they suggest booking one month in advance for a Saturday afternoon table, and men dare not show up without jacket and tie—the Ritz still puts on the ritz.
The Standard Bearer and Embodiment of England
There are many top-drawer hotels in London, but the Connaught never strays far from first place. With a clientele and staff that are equally loyal, the Connaught exudes a refined club like atmosphere that embodies English luxury and Edwardian elegance. Considered a dignified bastion of white-glove hospitality since it opened deep in the heart of Mayfair, renovations and alterations are always undertaken with extreme discretion.
Some things never change, and shouldn’t: here at the Connaught, it’s always 1897. Named after Queen Victoria’s third son, the Duke of Connaught, this low-profile landmark hotel is clearly favored by a list of longstanding guests who choose to ignore the trends of fashion and avoid media glare. The service by its expert, dedicated staff is surprisingly low-key; the hotel’s refined old-world charm is never effusive. With just ninety-two luxuriously appointed rooms and suites, the Connaught is a “baby grand” hotel in size and is home to the much-acclaimed Grill Room.
Transformed in early 2003 by the deft hands of Chef Angela Hartnett, a protégé of superstar Gordon Ramsey, and by Nina Campbell, London’s most sought- after decorator, The Grill and its sister venue, The Menu, are very much at the forefront of London’s vibrant dining scene. The original mahogany paneling remains, as do the house specialties, but the menu now leans toward the Mediterranean. If you’ve never stayed at Buckingham Palace, stay (or break your fast) here for the next best thing.
The World’s Most Famous Flower Show
In a gardening-mad nation, the grand event of the season is this Olympics of gardening, a monumental four-day horticultural orgy. One enormous pageant of flowers is displayed with painstaking drama and imaginative precision by 700 juried exhibitors. The cream of British and international horticulturalists, they fill the 11 acres of the Christopher Wren-designed Royal Hospital grounds, 3.5 acres under state-of-the-art twin “marquee” tents. It is a quintessentially British celebration of gardening but with a natural appeal (and great people-watching opportunities) that easily reaches beyond obsessive gardeners to the steadfast non gardening public that doesn’t know a dandelion from a magnolia.
Existing in some form since 1827, it is a premier event organized by the Royal Horticultural Society and sets the global standard (the society also organizes the largest annual flower show in the world at Hampton Court, as well as the RHS Flower Show at Tatton Park in Cheshire). Tickets to Chelsea are restricted to 160,000 over the four-day period, with the first two days (Tuesday and Wednesday) reserved for RHS members only.
Though many believe people-watching is best on public days (Thursday and Friday), the true gardener will want to see the exhibitions at their perky best before they wilt from the adoring gaze and scrutiny of so many fans. If you miss the Chelsea Flower Show, don’t miss London’s Royal Botanic Gardens (a.k.a. Kew Gardens), the world’s most famous gardens. They will take your breath away.
Glorious Walking and Delicious Repasts
William Wordsworth described England’s Lake District as “the loveliest spot that man has ever known.” The English understandably treat this far northwestern area with reverence. It is one of the country’s most scenic areas, at once pastoral and wild, graced with some fifteen principal lakes, dozens of lesser ones, and clusters of grazing sheep everywhere in between. The largest of the eleven protected national parks in England and Wales, the Lake District consists of some 880 square miles with a great variety of natural beauty. Most of it is privately owned; the rest belongs to the National Trust. Naturalists return time and again to explore its 1,800 miles of footpaths. Immortalized on canvas and in literature, it is the birthplace and definitive landscape of English Romanticism. Poet laureate Wordsworth (1770-1850) lived at Dove Cottage in Grasmere with his sister (who felt Grasmere “calls home the heart to quietness”) and is buried in the graveyard of the village church there.
Wordsworth was just as taken with nearby Ullswater, describing it as “perhaps . . . the happiest combination of beauty and grandeur, which any of the lakes affords”; it was on Ullswater’s shores that he beheld his famous “host of golden daffodils.” In summer a restored Victorian steamer plies the 9-mile length of the lake, the second largest in the district—the best way to enjoy the lakescape that inspired the giants of Romanticism. When summer crowds reach their peak and the world is too much for you, retreat to England’s first Relais and Chateaux country house, Sharrow Bay, on the relatively secluded southern shore of Ullswater. Legendary for its exceptional views of the lake, the half-mile of waterfront it commands, its sumptuous teas, and a renowned six-course dinner (desserts are a grand tradition here), 19th-century Sharrow Bay Country House Hotel is also known for its heartfelt hospitality.
The Lakeland’s other well-known luxury hotel-cum-restaurant is Miller Howe (in local dialect howe means “hill of’). Formerly owned and run by celebrity chef John Tovey, this small Edwardian-style hotel boasts a magical setting, with views over Windermere to the Langdale Pikes, that vies for attention with the hotel’s much-celebrated five-course menu. The experimental British cuisine now under the eye of Tovey’s successor protegee, Susan Elliott, is served in a flamboyant and theatrical manner beginning with dimmed lights and an expectant hush. The service is friendly and the air is that of a comfortable house party. Kudos are also plentiful for the prodi-gious wine list and lavish desserts.
A trek up to Orrest Head (the only way to walk off Miller Howe’s sinfully abundant Lakeland Platter breakfast) offers one of the best panoramic views in the region. A high point of the unforgettable photo op is Sea Fell Pike: at 3,210 feet, the tallest peak in England.
Eden on London’s Doorstep
“The Garden of England,” fertile Kent lives up to its affectionate nickname—in May its apple orchards in blossom are an unforgettable sight. Its most renowned garden and one of the most beloved (and in a nation besotted with gardens, the competition is tough) is Sissinghurst, created by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, her diplomat husband. Sackville-West— Bloomsbury writer, journalist, and famed eccentric—added inspired gardener to her list of talents when she created these spectacular gardens in the 1930s around the great Elizabethan manor where she and Nicolson lived. (At the same time, she became the contributing gardening columnist for the Observer.)
She designed a series of gardens within gardens, each one devoted to a particular theme revolving around a family of plants or a single color. Most famous, and imitated around the world to this day, is her White Garden, which reaches its zenith in June. June and July are glorious in the Rose Garden, whose old Bourbon, centifolia, and moss roses are world-renowned.
The Herb Garden is full of both the familiar and the exotic throughout the summer, while the Cottage Garden filled with thousands of bulbs is at its best in the fall. Despite day visitors who take advantage of Sissinghurst’s relative proximity to London, the gardens are still an oasis of serenity and beauty.
A Magnificent Pile of Medieval Origin
Like a lady of the lake, Leeds appears as if a mirage, its buff-colored stone and crenellated towers reflected in the waters that surround it. Once described by Lord Conway as the loveliest castle in the world, it is historically noteworthy as well as visually striking, a trip through the ages beginning with its earliest construction in the 12th century (replacing a 9th-eentury wooden structure) until its recent bequest to a private foundation in 1975. It gained much favor as a royal residence, not unlike that of Balmoral today, beginning as early as 1278 when it was given to Edward I by a wealthy courtier seeking favor. It eventually passed along to Henry VIII, who loved spending time here, and who invested much effort and money in expanding and redecorating it to resemble more a royal palace and less a military fortress. For many years it was a dower castle: six queens called it their favorite residence.
The distinctive lake-like moat that encircles it is unlike any other water-defense setting in Britain.
Some of the 500-acre parkland is given over to gardens and includes an aviary opened in 1988 that is one of the best in the country. Then there is the unlikely Dog Collar Museum (dogs once played an important role in guarding the grounds): it sounds like an oddity, but winds up being a highlight for most visitors. Spanning a period of 400 years, some of the collars are veritable works of art.
The Mother Church of the Anglican World
The present Canterbury Cathedral, greatly rebuilt in 1174 after fires destroyed earlier structures, was once England’s—and northern Europe’s—most sacred pilgrimage site. In 1170 one of the most important incidents in British history took place here: Archbishop Thomas Becket was cruelly murdered in the northwest transept of the cathedral by four knights of Henry II. He would be canonized three years later, encouraging a repentant Henry II to establish the cathedral as the center of English Christianity. The cathedral is famous for its outstanding 12th-and 13th-century stained-glass windows.
Much of Canterbury was destroyed during a 1942 WW II air raid, but the local people had removed the windows for safekeeping (the replacement windows were destroyed, but the cathedral itself remained unscathed). The original windows can once again be seen in place. The most important are considered to be those in the Great West Window, Bible Windows, and Miracle Windows. Located on the route from London to the port of Dover, Canterbury was already an important town in ancient Roman times.
It gained further favor when, in A.D. 597, St. Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory the Great to convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons to Christianity; it would soon become the seat of the Primate of the Church of England, with St. Augustine its first archbishop. The great English poet Geoffrey Chaucer (1335—1400) wrote Canterbury Tales about a group of pilgrims who traveled from London to St. Thomas Becket’s shrine in 1387, further immortalizing the town and cathedral.
A Retreat Where Royals Relaxed
Charles Dickens was drawn to the sandy beaches and dramatic cliffs of this island off the southern coast of England. Today’s most visited site is Osborne House, the cherished home of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, where they lived some of their happiest hours. Constructed at Victoria’s own expense as a seaside retreat in 1845, it was here that the family managed to leave behind royal responsibilities, enjoying long walks and informal family dinners prepared by the couple’s nine children. Grief-stricken at the early death of her consort, Albert, in 1865, Victoria requested that everything remain exactly as it had been in his final days. Today their spirit imbues every corner of the place, offering a unique insight to royal family life, from the cozy clutter of treasured family mementos to the bedroom where the queen died on January 22, 1901.
The island is a favorite summer destination of the British, one that attracted Alfred, Lord Tennyson, among other notables. The coastal Tennyson Down provided the poet and those who follow in his footsteps with outstanding views of the Needles, three offshore rock pinnacles battered by the waves of the English Channel. The Down is part of the 65-mile Coastal Path that encircles the diamond-shaped island. Don’t skip the interior’s highlight: the 11th-century Carisbrooke Castle. The best-preserved Norman castle in the kingdom provides spectacular views for those who climb to the top of the keep. A less enthusiastic visitor, Charles I, was held hostage here by Oliver Cromwell in 1647 pending execution: His attempt to escape was foiled when he got stuck between the window bars.
A Medieval Wonder That Still Surprises
Work first began on Winchester Cathedral in 1089 to create what would become the longest medieval cathedral in existence (526 feet): famous for its soaring twelve-bay nave, it is one of England’s greatest, as lovely from without as within. It is proof of the former market town’s prominence in the Middle Ages when, as capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, Winchester was a major religious and commercial center. The cathedral was built of Quarr stone from the nearby Isle of Wight on the ruins of a Saxon church. Literary buffs make a pilgrimage here to visit the tomb of Jane Austen (1775—1817), combining the excursion with a visit to Chawton Cottage, her pleasant country home 15 miles west of town, where many of her greatest works were penned.
Much of the mood and spirit of the age immortalized in her six major novels, including Sense and Sensibility and Emma, is still within reach in Hampshire’s hilly interior. This bucolic area was a lode mined for literary inspiration by a later titan, Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), who hailed from neighboring Dorset (known by its historical name Wessex in his work), one of England’s smallest and most culturally rich shires.