© 2002, 2016 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
County Kent is the southeastern-most county of England. I (almost) accidentally spent a week there in December 2002, with my wife, Jenny. On one other occasion, I passed through it on the train from London to Dover, where I took a hovercraft across to France, and then a train to Paris.
When we reserved time on our calendars for a trip in December 2002, our first choice was to go to Uruguay. Given the very cheap fares United Airlines had been offering to South America, not only was I looking forward to meeting up with the friends I'd made down there during a 2-week visit a year earlier, I was also hoping for some much warmer weather, it being summer and all down there. However, that was not to be; when the time came to book, South America was no longer on sale! [Don't you just hate that when that happens?] However, London, England, was on sale, and as there are always plenty of things to do in and around that area, we made the decision to go there instead, I booked the flights, and I found a hotel, all in a matter of hours, only six days before our departure. So what if we were going to a different continent, country, and season; at least we were still going! [Remember my Travel Rule: Always have a Plan B, even for Plan B!]
[Diary] We travelled light; our luggage consisted of a full backpack and a daypack, for two people, for 10 days. We expected wintry weather, so took warm clothes. I even packed my long underwear (for which I was most grateful later on).
It was our first time flying since the Federal Government took over airport security from private contractors. Although the security line at Washington Dulles International (IAD) airport was very long, it moved quite quickly, and the inspectors were polite and most efficient. After years of having people messing around and not paying attention, and with each airport having its own idea of what a thorough search meant, it was most encouraging to see a major improvement.
We took the shuttle bus to the mid-field terminal and settled into the Red Carpet Club business lounge, where we had a light breakfast in comfort. Our flight left on time, and we were on a Boeing 767. Although it was quite old, the seats had been replaced; however, due to our last-minute booking, we were unable to get in the extended legroom section. Flying time was six hours, and we passed the time by reading. We had a huge tail wind, which brought us into London Heathrow (LHR) some 30 minutes early.
Almost all trans-Atlantic flights from the U.S. east coast depart in the evening, arriving early-to-mid-morning the next day. However, United had introduced one flight each day that departed Washington at 9:30 am, and arrived in London around 9:30 pm, local time, with the idea being that despite the 5-hour time change, one might be able to get on local time by going straight to bed on arrival. Since I hardly ever sleep at all on the night flights, I figured that this approach would be no worse, so was happy to try it.
We arrived with light drizzle falling, and soon had our luggage. We walked the long tunnels to the underground station, and immediately boarded the subway on the Piccadilly line. We got off at Earl's Court and waited for a District line train. While there, we chatted with a young German couple who were winding up their holiday. From there it was a short ride to Paddington Station, an area with which we'd become quite familiar over the years.
Before leaving home, we'd searched the Internet for a budget hotel. While doing so we came across a special winter rate, which just so happened to be for the Royal Norfolk Hotel, 100 yards from Paddington station. We'd stayed there on a number of occasions many years ago, but the price had steadily increased over the years, so we'd stopped using it. However, their internet-only rate was only £45 for a double room with en-suite, tax, and full English breakfast included, while the regular rate if one booked directly with the hotel or via a travel agent was £110! So, we'd reserved one night at the start of our trip and two more at the end.
The front desk clerk checked us in. He was a typical Brit—an Algerian who had been raised in Denmark, but was now living in London. Such is the world of the EU these days. Although it was 11 pm, local time (but only 6 pm back home), we weren't quite ready for bed, so I ventured out to a fish and chip shop several blocks away, and laid in a good-sized snack. Like all hotels and B&Bs in the UK, our room came with all the equipment and supplies for making tea and coffee, so we put that to good use as well. Lights out at 12:30 am.
[Diary] Our room faced the street, and delivery people were out awfully early, so I awoke much earlier than planned. However, we both had more than six hours of sleep. We went down to the dining room for breakfast around 8:30 am. Our waitress was a young woman from Mexico, whose husband was attending graduate school. She got bored with sitting at home, so got that job. We had the full English breakfast, since it was included in the room rate: juice, bacon, sausage, eggs, fried bread, tomato, mushrooms, toast, and the ever-present pot of tea. Way too much food at any time, let alone so early in the day.
We checked out of the hotel at 9:30 and walked the 150 yards to Paddington train station. The information office informed us that the train we wanted left from Victoria station, so we hopped on the Circle line underground for a 15minute ride.
Earlier that year, we spent a week in London with side trips to Oxford and Brighton. This time, we planned on covering the county of Kent with a short visit to the county of East Sussex, both south and east from London. We bought one-way tickets to Canterbury for £15 each, and headed off on the 2-hour trip. While no rain was in sight, it was pretty cold. We read a newspaper and watched the countryside go by.
From the station, we walked into Canterbury and located the tourist office just by the main gate to the grounds of the famous Canterbury Cathedral. As we hadn't done any advance research on what we might see or do on this trip, we made good use of these facilities. The young lady recommended the hotel built into the gate wall itself, only 50 yards away. The Cathedral Gate Hotel was 564 years old, and, yes, the manager did have a quaint twin room for us, right up in the attic, and for £46 at that, continental breakfast included. So, we checked in and proceeded to the "Rooftop" room on the top floor. The room floor had such a slope that the legs on one end of each bed had extensions fitted to them to make them horizontal. However, the table had no such modifications as I found when a teacup I placed on it almost slid off the other side. In any event, we settled in and had a cup of tea.
We walked through the cathedral grounds then bought a ticket to go inside. It was certainly something to see although I thought the outside looked poor in comparison to other churches I'd seen. We paid our respects at the site where Thomas a' Becket was killed and where his shrine stood until Henry VIII had it destroyed when he broke with Rome. Until then it had been a major drawcard for pilgrims from all over England and Europe. (Such pilgrimages were recorded in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.)
As you may know, the archbishop of Canterbury is the head of the Anglican Church. A new one, Rowan Williams, had just been appointed and was proving to be somewhat controversial. He certainly seemed to be progressive, and most days we were in country he was the subject of one newspaper article or another. Apart from allowing women to have higher ranks in the clergy, the other main issue was the separation of church and state such that Prince Charles, heir to the throne, could be allowed to marry a divorced woman. And currently, certain clergy were entitled to sit in the House of Lords, but would that continue?
It sure got dark early—before 4 pm—so we went in search of a place to eat. We finally finished up eating sitting outside a fish and chip shop, devouring a Cornish pasty and steak and kidney pie. We took some deserts and drinks back to the room. I had a long hot bath in a very deep tub that was even long enough to fit me. Then we read through some tourist information to plan the next day's activities.
[Diary] I was awake from 1–4 am, which was par for the course for trans-Atlantic crossings for me; however, I did get back to sleep until 8:15 am. As it was possible to have our breakfast delivered to our room we did so, and it arrived promptly at 8:30 am per our request. After a bowl of cornflakes, toast, and tea, we were sufficiently charged for our next expedition. However, I discovered the hard way that the electric kettle was not quite idiot-proof, and managed to scold my left thumb quite badly with a steam burn. I did manage to get my hand under cold water within seconds, and that saved a lot of pain and damage. In any event, we always travel with a first-aid kit, so no point doing that if we don't get to use it occasionally, right?
We checked out at 10:30 am. It was overcast and there was light rain. As a precaution, I wore my long underwear as the temperature was steadily dropping toward freezing. We walked a short distance to the main bus terminal and waited for about 15 minutes. Eventually, a double-decker bus arrived, the driver informed us that the best ticket was a local area day pass, and we boarded, sitting upstairs at the front, so we had a good view. The movement of the bus in that position was greatly exaggerated, and we constantly thought we were going to sideswipe cars and passengers waiting at the curb each time the bus turned. By the way, the name of the bus company was "Stagecoach".
We got off in Whitstable, a small sleepy seaside town north of Canterbury. We found some very friendly ladies in the tourist office, and then we toured the town museum, which was very well organized and interesting. This was fishing country, so many exhibits had a nautical flavor. This was the site of the first steam-powered passenger railway. We walked along the waterfront, but the cold wind made it unpleasant; however, the rain did hold off during our stop.
Next stop was Herne Bay, a little further east along the coast. By the time we arrived, the rain was back, so we quickly found a family restaurant for lunch. It had great food, great service, and great prices! I devoured sausage with onions in French bread while Jenny had sausages, chips, and peas. She also had a jam roly-poly with custard for desert, a little touch of home. And to top it off, the waitress made me her secret-recipe cafe-au-lait, of which I had two cups.
The town also had a small museum and tourist office, so we spent time there keeping dry and warm. We saw fossils of hippopotamus teeth and elephant tusks that had been excavated nearby. They dated back to a time when such critters lived in that area, which was hard to imagine given the current weather.
We walked along the waterfront for a bit to see the raging sea crashing on the beach. [Quite often, English beaches are quite stony, with large rounded pebbles everywhere. Many don't have any sand to speak of.]
From there, we took the bus onto Margate, a larger town further to the east, again on the coast. It was quite cold and windy, so we got information at the tourist office, bought some groceries, and headed for the Luxor B&B. Unfortunately, it was on a busy road, and the bedroom window leaked cold air all night, which became a problem in the middle of the night when the room heat was switched off. In any event, it was adequate as was the full breakfast; it cost £46 for the two of us.
[Diary] After breakfast, we checked out and walked back into town to the bus station. We bought a day pass and headed out, again in a double-decker bus, with a young woman driver. She dropped us off not far out of town and we walked the mile to the beach, which had real sand. It also had chalk cliffs all around. Apart from seeing the cliffs up close, we visited this place because it was named Botany Bay, the namesake of the place at which the First Fleet from England settled in Australia, in 1788. (It's part of the Sydney Harbor area.)
Rather than walk back to the same stop at which we got off, we decided to go south along the cliff tops and catch up the main road further on. Unfortunately, the bus route must have gone inland, as no bus stops or buses were ever seen. So, we had a 3-mile walk through the countryside, stopping occasionally to watch the locals at work and play. There was a busy golf course near the cliffs, a few trees, and lots of cold wind. As if getting that damned ball in the hole wasn't hard enough already! In any event, the English Channel made for quite a water hazard.
We finally got to the town of Broadstairs where we had lunch at the Prince Albert pub. From there, we took the local bus to Ramsgate, a popular summer resort with a large boat marina. We dropped into the tourist office to get information, and set off to find a place to stay. On the third try, we were lucky. Host Tony was very nice, took good care of us, and his place was on a quiet street. After a hot shower, we prepared the food we had bought, and stayed in for the evening watching TV. First, there was a most interesting documentary on ancient stone circles, then one on the development of radar in the UK, followed by an interview with David Attenborough. [Like most places we stayed in England, TV was limited to four channels.]
We slept well although I was awake for an hour in the middle of the night, during which time I finished my Agatha Christie novel.
[Diary] After our full breakfast, we checked out and walked back into the town along the waterfront. There was certainly some serious money tied up in the pleasure craft we saw. We got information on towns to the south and changed some travelers' checks at the bank. Then it was on the bus to Sandwich, home of the 4th Earl thereof (John Montagu), who invented the idea of sticking food between two slices of bread. Several stories abound as to when/how he did this: one has him playing cards, and he didn't want to get grease on them; the other has him taking lunch to work. The Earl was also the first Lord of the Admiralty in which capacity he was a sponsor of Captain James Cook, the explorer who (re)discovered Australia. It was Cook who ran into the Hawaiian Islands on one of his voyages, which he named the Sandwich Islands to honor his patron. [Cook was killed just off the Big Island, near a town that now bears the name Captain Cook.]
Sandwich was a quaint little town with half-timbered houses, narrow streets, and an old city gate and wall segments. We did the walking tour and finished up at the New Inn pub for a cup of hot chocolate and a chat with several of the locals who were having their noontime constitutional pint.
From there, we boarded the bus to Dover, again sitting upstairs in a double-decker. We had a good view of the countryside. Two big employers in the region were Pfizer chemicals and a nuclear power plant; we passed both.
In Dover, we dropped by the tourist office. Most of the B&Bs were clustered on two busy roads, so we went in search of a quiet neighborhood. On the fourth try, we found one that had a twin room for two nights. And with a multi-night rate of £40/night with full breakfast, it was a good deal. It was also close to downtown and the main tourist attraction, Dover Castle. The room had an en-suite bathroom and a double and single bed. After a rest and cup of tea in the room, we ventured out to a restaurant for dinner: bangers (sausages) and mash with peas for me, and fish and chips for Jenny. Back in our room, we watched TV and ate deserts.
[Diary] After a large and excellent breakfast, we started the steep climb up the path to Dover Castle, which although open for the most part to tourists, was still a military establishment. I especially liked not having to haul the backpack. We arrived at 10 am, opening time, and proceeded to the secret tunnels only to be told that the first tour didn't start until 11. [Don't you just hate that when that happens?] So, we got tickets for that and walked around a bit, visiting a Saxon church from around the year 1000, and a Roman lighthouse. At 11 am, we joined the guided tour of the tunnel complex that had been carved out of the chalk cliffs over the centuries. The first section was the hospital. Then came the tunnels built during the Napoleonic Wars when an invasion of England was expected. More than 2,000 troops lived down there at that time, and, apparently, more of them died from disease from living in the cold and so close to each other than died of other causes. Apparently, the lower levels were extensive, but were still classified and closed to the public. In the event of a nuclear war, it was to be used as the base for government in the southeast of England; however, the authorities have discovered that radioactivity would leech in through water coming through the porous chalk, so that idea has been abandoned.
The tunnel complex was the base from which the Dunkirk evacuation was run when the Brits were forced from continental Europe in WWII. It was only in 1985 that the Brits acknowledged the tunnels even existed, and it appeared that the Germans had not known of their existence. We then toured the old castle keep where Henry VIII dropped by for a few days to inspect his fortifications. Finally, we finished up on Admiral's Way, an observation platform that stuck out from the cliffs, from which we got our first glimpse of the White Cliffs of Dover. Despite the cold wind, the visit was well worth it, and by the time we got back home it had taken more than four hours. After a nap, we headed out for fish and chips, and then bought food to eat in the room that night. The temperature was hovering around freezing and snow had been forecast.
[Diary] At breakfast, we met a Japanese man who had been transferred to London for three years. We chatted with him and then checked out, catching the 9:35 am bus for Hastings, a coastal city in the county of East Sussex. Although there was no snow, it definitely was freezing. Throughout the 2½-hour journey, we watched from our front seat—you guessed it—upstairs in a double-decker bus.
After a short visit to the tourist office we decided that we didn't want to stay right in the city, so after a snack and hot drinks we headed for the train station where we took a 15-minute ride to the town of Battle, some six miles to the north. The Battle of Hastings actually took place there in 1066 resulting in William the Conqueror's whipping Harold, but only just. Apparently, after killing all those Saxons, William decided to build an abbey on the site as part of his penance. In the years that followed, the town of Battle grew up around Battle Abbey.
We arrived in the afternoon of the last day of a fair, and the abbey admission charge was much higher and some usual activities were unavailable, so we walked about the town and ate in our most comfortable hotel room at the rear of a restaurant. A most interesting documentary on the evolution of English after the Normal Conquest played on TV. (Did you know that the chess term "checkmate" came from Arabic via French? It means, "The King is dead".)
[Diary] Our full English breakfast was served in the restaurant and at a most respectable hour too. After that, we stowed our luggage with our host and headed for the abbey. We bought our tickets, got our audio wand, and headed out around the grounds, museum, and battlefield for a narrated tour. The audio wand allowed us to get commentary from the point of view of a Saxon soldier, a Norman knight, and Harold's wife (who was present at the battle, tending to the wounded). Of course, the two sides had different versions of the story.
At 12:30 pm, we retrieved our luggage, walked to the station, and boarded the 1-pm train for London. We got off at Tunbridge Wells where we were met by friends. We had a late lunch together and walked around the old town before departing for London on the 3:30-pm train.
The train terminated at Charring Cross station, so we walked a few blocks north to Leicester Square, home of the discount-theater ticket office. We got tickets for a performance that night then headed back to our hotel at Paddington station to check-in, unload the luggage, and to prepare for an evening of theater.
At 7:45 pm, the lights went down, the curtain went up, and George Bernard Shaw's play Mrs. Warren's Profession began. Although it had been written in 1895, it was banned for 32 years, due to the nature of its subject matter. (Mrs. Warren and her business partners ran "houses of ill repute".) The star was Brenda Blethyn, to whom we had only recently been introduced in several movies. It was most enjoyable. We then went back home for a late gourmet supper of fish and chips with Jamaican ginger beer. What bliss!
[Diary] This was our rest day. After breakfast, we took it easy in the room, planning the day. Finally, we headed downtown where Jenny visited the Cabinet War Rooms (from which Churchill ran his end of WWII). I had seen it before, so I went on a walking tour over the Thames on a new footbridge, to the huge London Eye Ferris wheel, and around the Houses of Parliament. We met up at Westminster Abbey, and then headed back to the theater district for a matinee play. This time is was Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, which has been running non-stop for 50 years, with more than 20,000 performances. It was well cast and most enjoyable, and we were sworn to secrecy as to "who done it".
Afterwards we stopped in at a large supermarket to get food for the evening as well as candy and a Christmas pudding to take home. Back in the room, we packed our gear and settled down to an early night.
[Diary] Although the alarm was set for 4:45 am, we were awake before that. Soon after 5 am, we checked-out and walked to Paddington station where we caught the Heathrow Express train. Although it was expensive compared to the subway, it was much quicker and there was no change. At Heathrow, we were soon checked-in and seated in the Red Carpet Club lounge having a light breakfast. This time we managed to get exit seats with copious amounts of legroom, so the flight home was quite comfortable. United Airlines had declared bankruptcy a few days before, and from the quality of the meals, I could see where they were trying to save money!
As we approached Washington D.C., we were advised that freezing rain was falling and that we'd have to circle for a bit; however, we landed with little delay. Once outside we found quite a bit of snow on the ground, rain, and freezing temperatures. Despite the weather and delays, passport control was quick, our luggage came quickly, and we got a taxi without waiting. However, at home, our front entrance was covered in a layer of ice, so getting up the steps to the door was tricky. As we had a very early flight back, we were home by 1 pm local time, so, while Jenny unpacked, I got the ice and snow off of one car and went shopping to fill the empty refrigerator. We were back in the real world, with 10 days' worth of phone messages, email, and mail to handle.
[Diary] It was good to be back in our own place and bed; however, there was to be a distinct shortage of country sausage, bacon without large amounts of fat, and fish and chips. C'est la vie!
In the words of Mark Twain: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness".