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Sunday, 10 November 2013

Kent Castles - Day 4

I had the biggest breakfast ever this morning so it was a good job that the porter was keen to do all the luggage handling, with me just counting and telling him where to load it all! 

We had a slightly earlier start this morning, leaving the hotel at 0930hrs. We avoided the motorway on our scenic journey through to west Kent on this very clear, fresh, sunny autumn morning to our destination, Hever Castle.

There have been three main periods in the construction of this historic castle. The oldest part of the castle dates to 1270 and consisted of the gatehouse and a walled bailey. In the early 1500s the Bullen family bought the castle and added a Tudor dwelling within the walls and so it became the childhood home of its most famous inhabitant, Anne Boleyn. It later passed into the ownership of Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. From 1557 onwards the Castle was owned by a number of families including the Waldegraves, the Humfreys and the Meade Waldos. Finally, in 1903, William Waldorf Astor invested time, money and imagination in restoring the Castle, building the ’Tudor Village’ and creating the gardens and lake.

Hever Castle is now a tourist attraction, drawing on its links to Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, its mazes, gardens and lake.

There is an annual events programme with assorted events including jousting tournaments and archery displays in the summer months and an annual patchwork and quilting exhibition in September. The castle has also become the venue for a triathlon. The Castles to Country Houses exhibition contains a collection of 1/12 scale model houses ranging from the medieval to Victorian periods.

The castle offers three floors containing antique furniture, Anne Boleyn's prayer books, instruments of torture, and a large collection of Tudor paintings. There is also a museum of the Kent Yeomanry. The remains of the original country house timbers can still be seen within the stone walls of the fortification, while the gatehouse is the only original part of the castle. It has the oldest working original portcullis in England.

The grounds of the castle include a yew maze, planted in 1904. There is also a water maze, opened in 1999, the object of which is to get to the folly at the centre without getting wet, while in the children's adventure playground there is a tower maze. The castle gardens contain a wide range of features including an Italianate garden, rose gardens, a herb garden, and topiary.

When we walked through the entrance, down the drive through the trees and around the corner to the sight of the castle standing proud in glorious sunshine with a back drop of the blue sky and surrounded by trees in their autumn colours, I can only describe it as being like a Fairytale. It is a very impressive building in a stunning setting, which was the climax at the end of a successful tour.

We had an easy journey home, all of our feeder vehicles were in position and waiting for us when we pulled in the yard. The transfer of luggage went smoothly and before many minutes, all passengers were in the back of a mini bus and on their way home. I have had a very enjoyable few days and I am not looking forward to the mundane day to day work of school runs and university sports until I next go on tour, which as far as I know, will be at Christmas. So this is me signing off until then. Keep safe everyone. x

Kent Castles - Day 2

I arrived for breakfast at 0830 hrs this morning where they had laid on a very good spread. We left the hotel at 1000hrs, destination Leeds Castle.

Leeds Castle is in Kent, 5 miles (8 km) southeast of Maidstone. A castle has been on the site since 1119. In the 13th century it came into the hands of King Edward I, for whom it became a favourite residence; in the 16th century, Henry VIII used it as a residence for his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. The castle today dates mostly from the 19th century and is built on islands in a lake formed by the River Len, to the east of the village of Leeds.

The last private owner of the castle was the Hon. Olive, Lady Baillie, daughter of Almeric Paget, 1st Baron Queenborough and his first wife, Pauline Payne Whitney, an American heiress. Lady Baillie bought the castle in 1926. She redecorated the interior, first working with the French architect and designer Armand-Albert Rateau, who oversaw exterior alterations and added interior features such as a 16th-century-style carved-oak staircase), then with the Paris decorator Stéphane Boudin. During the early part of World War II the castle was used as a hospital where Lady Baillie and her daughters hosted burned Commonwealth airmen as part of their recovery. Survivors remember the experience with fondness. Upon her death in 1974, Lady Baillie left the castle to the Leeds Castle Foundation, a private charitable trust whose aim is to preserve the castle and grounds for the benefit of the public. The castle was opened to the public in 1976.


An aviary was added in 1980 and by 2011 it contained over 100 species, but it was decided to close it in October 2012 as it was felt the foundation could make better use of the £200,000 a year it cost to keep the aviary running. The castle and its grounds are a major leisure destination with a maze, a grotto, a golf course and what may be the world's only museum of dog collars.

It is a Grade I listed building (first listed in 1952) and recognised as an internationally important structure. In 1998 Leeds Castle was one of 57 heritage sites in England to receive more than 200,000 visitors. According to figures released by the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions, nearly 560,000 people visited the castle in 2010.

The castle was a location for the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets where it stood in for "Chalfont", the ancestral home of the aristocratic d'Ascoyne family.

It was the set for the Doctor Who episode The Androids of Tara.

Lorraine and I had planned to go to Tenterden from here, just to stop for an hour to try and add a little more interest to the day, but only two days ago, there was a major fire in the centre of the high street. It is only a small place and so this devastation would have taken out half the village so that idea was scrapped. Instead we stayed at the castle all day but offered an early return to the hotel for those who wanted it because it is only 5 minutes down the road.

After we had done the first run back to the hotel we went straight back to the castle and went into the maze and the grotto. The grotto was amazing. The highlight of the day for me! 

You descend into the grotto at Leeds after finding your way through the yew tree maze, down a dark flight of steps, your feet gingerly feeling for the next flight down as your eyes take in the rather impressive underworld. The world you find is submarine rather than subterranean, an undersea cave decorated with shells and corals and Nereids, sea nymphs, stand in niches along the walls.

A tape loop (or the modern digital equivalent) plays the sounds of the sea - waves, wind, seabirds – and a fruity, actorly voice intones ‘The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner’. Ariel’s song from “The Tempest” seems more appropriate:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that does fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.

We took the remainder of our group back to the hotel at 1600hrs. Plenty of time for a jacuzzi before dinner. Our meal this evening, once again was very tasty and it seems I am not the only one enjoying the food. After dinner I briefly chatted to some of our group before making my excuses and disappearing off to bed. Sleep well everyone. Goodnight x

Kent Castles - Day 3

I am loving the breakfast in this hotel! After filling my tummy and a couple of cups of good strong coffee, we set off for Canterbury.

Canterbury is a popular tourist destination: consistently one of the most-visited cities in the United Kingdom, the city's economy is heavily reliant upon tourism. There is also a substantial student population, brought about by the presence of three universities. Canterbury is, however, a relatively small city, when compared with other British cities.

Parts of the city have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many historical structures remain, including a city wall founded in Roman times and rebuilt in the 14th century, the ruins of St Augustine's Abbey and a Norman castle, and perhaps the oldest school in England, The King's School. Modern additions include the University of Kent, Canterbury Christ Church University, the University College for the Creative Arts, the Marlowe Theatre, and the St Lawrence Ground, home to Kent County Cricket Club. The city lies at the heart of the City of Canterbury, a local government district.

Once I had dropped everyone off I was a little bit naughty and dashed for a photo of the cathedral before taking the coach to the coach park a little out of town.

We hadn't been here for long before the heavens opened and it poured with rain. The rain didn't stop until we left. We were parked at the back of Starbucks so I gave Lorraine an umbrella and we went for coffee. 

While I was locking the coach, Lorraine was struggling with her umbrella. She thought she had it sorted and was stood waiting for me. Once I'd locked up, I looked at her and just as I was going to say 'you're umbrella doesn't look fully open', it closed around her head! She was stood in the pouring rain with an umbrella stuck on her head and I couldn't stand up straight for laughing! It was just like something you'd see in a comic strip and once again, I didn't have my camera handy. It gave me an enormous amount of entertainment for the rest of the day and I am still having fits of giggles at the thought of it!

We went to pick everyone up at 1430 and were expecting to see a line of drowned rats stood waiting for us but they were all surprisingly dry. They had all found things to interest them and keep them out of the weather, whether it was one of the many museums, the cathedral or one of the other UNESCO sites, or the Canterbury Tales. They were certainly not wet, cold and miserable like we had expected and had all enjoyed their time.

Next, we set off for the Medway for a short visit to Rochester. Lorraine and I had decided to add this to the itinery so everyone was pleasantly surprised to learn we were making an extra visit today. A city steeped in history, dominated by a fine Norman Castle and Cathedral, bounded by the maritime traditions and spirit of past British naval dominance on the River Medway.

The town was for many years the favourite of Charles Dickens, who lived nearby at Gads Hill Place, Higham, and who based many of his novels in the area. The Diocese of Rochester, the second oldest in England, is based at Rochester Cathedral, and was responsible for the founding of King's School in 604 AD, which is the second oldest school in the world. Rochester Castle, built by Gundulf of Rochester, has one of the best preserved keeps in England or France, and during the First Barons' War (1215–1217) in King John's reign, baronial forces captured the castle from Archbishop Stephen Langton and held it against the king, who then besieged it.

This was the first time I had visited Rochester and I liked it very much. It is only one small high street but everything you find there is independent, individual and in keeping with it's surroundings. We were only here for just over an hour which, for us today, was long enough. Although it had stopped raining it was getting bitterly cold and would soon be dark. 

We arrived back at the hotel at 1700hrs. Just in time to get layered up to stand out on the golf course to watch the firework display from Leeds Castle. We were told we would have the best free view and that the fireworks would fill the valley. Everyone was a little disappointed to find that we couldn't see the fireworks but I did see a hare, an owl and found a very haunted looking cabin in the woods! Needless to say, I didn't explore that one!

Our menu this evening was disappointing although I did enjoy the food that was served. The majority of our people have disappeared straight after dinner to pack their cases because tomorrow we are heading home. That left an empty bar for Lorraine and I to enjoy a glass of wine in peace before I disappeared to watch the X factor on +1! 

Friday, 8 November 2013

Kent Castles - Day 1

After a few weeks of not touring I'm finally back on tour. It's been a long few weeks without it! I'm only away for the next 4 days so just a short one, but once again, I am working with my good friend Lorraine so I know it will be fun.

We set off at 0830hrs heading south and before we even got on the motorway there was a good buzz on the coach. Lorraine and I were chatting and laughing which filtered through to everyone and created a really good atmosphere.

Our lunch stop today was at the Pantiles in the town of Royal Tunbridge Wells. The town came into being as a spa in Georgian times and had its heyday as a tourist resort under Beau Nash when the Pantiles and its chalybeate spring attracted visitors who wished to take the waters. Though its popularity waned with the advent of sea bathing, the town remains popular and derives some 30% of its income from the tourist industry.

The Pantiles is host to many cafés, restaurants and bars as well as an abundance of independent shops. We stayed here for 2 1/2 hrs. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed their time here and were spoilt for choice with where to have lunch. 

We had just under an hour of travelling left before we arrived at our hotel. We are based for our few days at the Marriott Tudor Park Hotel Golf and Country Club. As we were driving in to the hotel, there was a man walking across the car park, just where I needed to put the nose of the coach before backing up to the reception. The man looked up at me as I very gingerly turned toward him, not wanting to cause him to panic. The look on his face when he looked up to see there was a woman driving this 13m coach was one of total horror! It was priceless, I wish I'd had my camera handy! Both Lorraine and I were in a fit of giggles. When I first started driving, the look of horror was one I saw regularly, but over the past few years it has become far more common to see women driving large vehicles and it was a look I had forgotten! 

My room is very comfortable, there is a pool, gym and spa available to hotel guests and our meal this evening was very nice. Lamb steak for main course, my favourite! The only criticism I would have of the hotel so far is that the red wine that is served by the glass, of which there are 4 choices, is cheap and nasty. I would have expected a lot nicer wine to be served, especially at the prices they are charging. Even so, I suffered a glass with my meal before disappearing off to my room to have some time to myself :-)