To Cornwall by Rail

I spent an uneventful, but pleasant, day lounging around Reading and visiting my old haunts. A good night’s sleep left me without a trace of jet lag and I was ready for my next destination.I fortified myself with the Novotel’s breakfast buffet, packed my bags and headed for the rail station, where  I boarded a Great Western Railway high-speed train for points West. I bought a “BritRail Pass” while in the U.S. which provides unlimited travel on any 8 days, in 1st Class. I was surprised to see that the 1st Class coaches were full but I’d taken the time to get seat reservations for my longest rides, and all was well.

The train experience is nicer than flying in so many ways (for example, no TSA-style inspection or long lines) but you do have to handle your own luggage. With that in mind, I chose to pack much more lightly this year and hefting my small suitcase to the overhead rack was easy. The train featured conveniences like free snacks and tea, free Wi-Fi, and recharging sockets.

My 3-1/2 hour ride took me west and south via Taunton, Exeter, Newton Abbey, and Plymouth, through the lovely English countryside. The sun deserted me, but the scenery was still lovely. The tracks run right along the coastal areas in places and provide great views of the water, with scores of sailboats at anchor. Cornwall is a beautiful area, lush and green at this time of year, with rolling hills and many large farms. Sheep, cattle, and horses generally ignored us as we rolled by.

I arrived at Bodmin Parkway station in a bit of a downpour but quickly found my pre-booked Parnell’s taxi, and off we went for Port Isaac. On the map above, it’s on the coast directly north of the station at Bugle. I had considered using two buses instead but the Saturday schedule for them wasn’t at all convenient and, given the rain, I’m glad I opted for the pricier taxi (42 pounds one way).

The drive to Port Isaac was exhilarating to say the least. The roads reminded me of Ireland: two narrow lanes with no shoulders and dense vegetation trimmed back right at the edge of the pavement (in Ireland, instead of hedges there are low stone walls). We drove at a pretty good speed and I had to double-check later to see that we still had both side mirrors. However, the driver seemed very competent and I was never alarmed.

An hour later we arrived in tiny Port Isaac and the side mirrors were once again in peril because the lanes down to the waterfront are in places just 6-feet wide. Forget backing up or turning around. However, after arriving at the Slipway Hotel without a scratch, I realized I was suddenly right in the middle of the Doc Martin TV series set. I decided to consider this over a pint of Doom Bar. Tomorrow: Why it all looks so much bigger on TV.

My Visit to Highclere Castle

For those of you who’ve spent the last several years under a rock, Downton Abbey was a blockbuster British telly series that took the U.S. by storm. This drama series follows the lives of the Crawley family and their servants, and was set mostly in the family’s classic Georgian country house. The series begins with the 1912 sinking of the Titanic and runs through 1925. The show had a six-year run that ended in early 2016 (though a movie is now being rumored). It was funny and smart, beautifully written, and covered an era that saw huge social changes. The show did a lot for the Full Employment for Costumers campaign – the evolution of clothing and hairstyles during the course of the show was amazing – and reintroduced us to the Edwardian and Art Deco eras.

The show was filmed at Highclere Castle, shown above, about 90 miles west of London. This “country house” that became so familiar to all Downton fans was built more than 300 years ago and is the Carnarvon family home. The 8th Earl and his wife live there now and generously open the house to the public on limited dates.

If the name “Lord Carnarvon” sounds familiar, it was he who bankrolled and joined with Howard Carter in 1922 to discover the Tomb of Tutankhamun. There’s an interesing Egyptian exhibit in the castle basement.

I took the train to Newbury and a taxi to the castle, arriving at 9:00 am just as the ticket office opened. A limited number of “open days” means a limited number of tickets and I got the idea to visit too late in my trip planning months ago to get a ticket online. So it was a gamble but, luckily, there were some tickets set aside for walk-ups and I got one.

The estate covers 5,000 acres and has beautiful grounds and gardens. The Georgian-style house includes 250 rooms, 70 bedrooms, a library with 5,650 books, and is chock full of priceless paintings, tapestries, and furnishings. We were allowed to stroll through most of the first two floors at our own pace and I was amazed at how pleasant and un-museum-like the experience was. Most of the treasures are not behind glass or out of reach (but no touching, of course). The Earl and his wife do live there and their family pictures are everywhere – not the big ones over the fireplace, I mean small 8×10 photos of them and their kids doing normal stuff, in frames on the side tables. Remarkable.

There is a staff of about 80 now but none of them work downstairs or serve dinner. They’re the guides, docents, gardeners, cooks, electricians, etc. who keep the place going as a tourist attraction – a source of the income needed to keep the place up and pay the enormous taxes. There are three tea rooms and a gift shop in the newer (relatively) stables annex out back, but it’s all very tastefully done. The views from around the house are fantastic and I was lucky to be there on a great weather day.

No indoor photography is allowed, so I can only share a few stock photos here. For the tour, in several rooms they had a poster-sized photo of a scene from Downtown Abbey on an easel, so you could immediately compare it with the real room – a nice touch.

After touring the house I spent 30 minutes enjoying the great weather and strolling the gardens and grounds. From what I observed, locals are allowed onto the property to picnic for free. No sightings of Carson, Lord Grantham, or Lady Mary but they were definitely there in spirit. It was an absolutely marvelous way to spend the morning and well worth the trip.

At 1:00, I retraced my steps to Newbury by taxi and had lunch at a local pub before catching the train back to Reading. My drama school classmates from UVA in the era of Minor Hall will take some amusement from the name of the pub:

The Catherine Wheel was an ambitious stage production that nearly broke us.

After returning to Reading and taking a short nap, I headed off to meet colleagues from my company’s local office for pints and dinner. We started off with some excellent Black Lager at the Zero Degrees brewery, then went to The Horn pub, and wound up with dinner at Las Iguanas, a Brazilian restaurant. Very tasty all ’round, and I haven’t laughed so hard in some time – it’s always great to see the lads.

Cheers, England – I’m Back

If you’ve read about my past trips, you know I fly Virgin Atlantic whenever possible. Their staff is great, the aircraft is well-outfitted, and the amenities are outstanding. Thank goodness for frequent-flyer mile upgrades! My flight Tuesday night did not disappoint and we arrived at Heathrow airport near London 30 minutes early. There was a huge crowd in the Border-Customs area, but we 1st Classers get a pass to the “Fast Track” lane, significantly easing the pain.

Over the years, almost every arrival here for me has been followed by a connecting flight a few hours later to Paris, Amsterdam, or wherever. So it was very relaxing to know that this time I had no deadline to meet after arriving at Heathrow. The Virgin Revivals Lounge was my home for a few hours and then, when I was ready, I caught the RailAir bus to Reading.

It ride was very smooth, the ticket was inexpensive (17 pounds), and the bus is quite comfortable. Forty-five minutes later I was checking into the Novotel Hotel in Reading.

When I moved to Reading eight years ago, the Novotel was my first home and office for a few weeks. It’s a nice, though not expensive, hotel with some weird European design stuff going on (the toilet’s in a different, tiny room that’s not near the “bathroom”,  funky sink design, etc.). But the staff is great, the location can’t be beat, the bed is comfortable, and the breakfast buffet is first rate.

After decompressing a bit, taking a shower, and ignoring the racoon-like dark circles under my eyes from lack of sleep, I went up to the central train station to get my Rail Pass validated. This pass, available to tourists only, allows unlimited train rides over a certain number of days and is very economical.

While at the station, I stopped into the nearby Three Guineas pub for my first English ale of the trip (Butcombe’s Rare Breed Pale Ale, 3.8%) and wound up in a conversation with two retired railroad guys. Now, before I left the U.S. I’d read that American tourists were being asked during their vacations about Donald Trump. So, I wondered just how long it would be before I had to do some “Trumpsplaining”. Well, it was only 1 hour and 15 minutes after I hit Reading. The two railroad guys and I had a jolly conversation about politics and the Nature of Man for about 30 minutes. They were fun to talk to and the beer was tasty.

I then dashed over to O’Neills pub to meet my former colleague and friend, Mike Mather. We talked business and the politics of both our countries. Mike is a great guy with tons of enthusiasm and he’s always overflowing with get-rich ideas. It was great to see him.

After bidding Mike goodbye, I strolled around Reading and let the nostalgia wash over me. It was great to live here and it’s always nice to come back and see its antique building facades and pedestrianized mall area.Eventurally, I grabbed a small pasta dinner at Ask Italia and returned to the hotel. I managed to keep myself awake until 9 pm before falling into what I hoped would be a deep and rejuvenating sleep. Tomorrow: Highclere Castle.

England-bound Once Again

Hills, vales, woods, netted in a silver mist,
Farm, granges, doubled up among the hills,
And cattle grazing in the watered vales
And cottage-chimneys smoking from the woods,
And cottage-gardens smelling everywhere,
Confused with smell of orchards.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s description of rural England is certainly idyllic, and I will soon be traipsing across it. Yes, I’m off to Great Britain once again. Adopting my own little austerity plan and fitting into a busy Fall schedule at work, my annual European travels this year will be limited to England. My own personal Brexit, I guess.

I’ll be starting and finishing up in good old London, with a big lap around the Southwest, courtesy of the Great Western Railroad. Along the way, I’ll stop in to visit some fun places, such as Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed.

I’ll also visit the beautiful Cornish coast and the tiny beach town where the Doc Martin TV series is filmed. My hotel is visible in the picture above, facing right onto the ramp into the water.

A few other other famous and historic towns are on the itinerary as well. And, as always, there will be theater, art, extreme people-watching, and lots of consideration and consumption of splendid English ales. 

I hope you’ll join me for the next few weeks right here, and tag along. Cheers!