I have visited many a foreign land. But England, which I had not visited and heard about from many, had always attracted me. So this time when my office offered a professional trip to Newbury, Berkshire, in the UK in May 2012 beginning, I just grabbed it.
I was fairly certain I would die on the long 11-hour journey from Kolkata to Heathrow via Dubai. But I must have done something good to some soul, because when I got into the double-decker Emirates A380 flight, my next seat on the flight was empty. I was able to stretch out, sleep properly without having a stranger’s shoulders rubbing against mine. Plus I watched Women in Black and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close on in-flight entertainment when I was awake.
My first impression of London was not that grand because in the first place, I landed at night and my route to Newbury via Reading and Sloughtook me away from the main city. The second reason was the weather. It was drizzling and windy. I could hardly find anybody on road, all shops were closed. It’s close to a curfew experience.
I stayed at Guywoods Bed & Breakfast, next to London Roadin Newbury, where I got treated with full English breakfast for all next seven days.
For rest of the day’s lunch and dinner, I visited nearby Tesco to pick up rations for the house.
Soon after, I moved to a rented apartment in Greenham, beside Greyberry Corpse at the Newbury border, in a ‘terraced house’. A terraced house is one of a row of similar houses joined together by their side walls. The closest Tesco outlet ended up being my daily stop for my entire period of stay there.
Slowly as the days passed by, going to office and coming back in the evening, the culture, weather of UK started to sink in.
UK’s greatest tourist destination, London, has been Newbury’s closest possible main metropolis. It is shaping up to be a big summer for London, coming into global focus as the Olympic Games follow on from the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee festivities. Warning for would-be tourists is that it is now the world’s costliest city for a day’s stay, having replaced Paris. So, be prepared for the Olympic-sized prices.
Every Saturday, I used to take a trip to London. Needless to mention, London is a huge, vibrant and exciting capital city with attractions to suit everyone. With its history, sophistication and culture, London is not only United Kingdom’s capital city, but a treasure-trove of important architectural sites, royal buildings, theatre experiences, and myriad of shops and world-famous department stores. With many escorted tours of England starting and ending in this cosmopolitan city, you have the chance to spend several nights in London before or after your tour to take in all it has to offer.
London is the nerve centre of British History. London is more than England; it’s a living, breathing, independent city-state. The transportation system of London (red buses, London tubes) is amazing in terms of its technology and interconnectivity.
Take a look at the map of the London tube network. Seriously, how could a tourist not get lost trying to decipher this?!
It took me a while to get used to it though, but by the second day I was a pro at jumping and switching trains. It works fairly well, though often, there are underground delays and the trains massively crowded and hot.
Some of the big name tourist attractions that I really enjoyed are the Tower of London, British Museum, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, Westminster Abbey, London Eye, St Paul’s Cathedral, Victoria and Albert, Natural History and Science Museum, Royal Albert Hall. Wimbledon, Greenwich are also nice to visit.
Giving more space to London here is not my intention, better I keep it parked for later. Instead, let me take you in a trip for destinations in smaller towns, rich with history and a more peaceful atmosphere, which I found really interesting.
Newbury is a civil parish in the county of West Berkshire in England. It is situated on the River Kennet and the Kennet and Avon Canal, and has a town centre containing many 17th Century buildings. It was founded late in the 11th Century following the Norman invasion as a new borough, hence its name. Newbury was the site of two Civil War battles — the First Battle of Newbury at Wash Common in 1643 and the Second Battle of Newbury at Speen in 1644.
One day, to explore the nearby places, I decided to walk down from office to my room. First, I encountered The Shaw House, a lovely H-shaped Elizabethan mansion built in 1581 by wealthy clothing merchant from Newbury named Thomas Dolman. The house was passed down through six generations of Dolmans between 1554 and 1728. During this time visitors to Shaw included several kings and queens on their royal progress around the country as well as courtiers travelling from London to Bath. It was later owned by the high-flying Duke of Chandos and the Andrews and Farquhar families. After Shaw Hosue ceased being a family home, it was used as a school, before finally being rescued with an extensive restoration project and opened to the public for hosting various events, wedding parties etc.
By the time I reached Donnington Castle, it was about 9 pm. Here dark sets in around 9.45 pm. So, daylight continues for quite long. Donnington Castle is a twin-towered gateway depicting a 14th century stronghold. Sadly, the remainder of Castle is little more than earthworks, but the gatehouse is still very striking and well worth a visit. The castle was later the home of Thomas Chaucer, son of poet Geoffrey Chaucer. It was besieged several times by Parliamentary troops during the English Civil War, but never taken. The Donnington Castle was reduced to a ruin in the aftermath of the Second Battle of Newbury at Speen in 1644.
Newbury is home to one of England’s major racecourses Newbury Racecourse, which celebrated its centenary in 2005. The most prestigious race in the calendar is the Hennessy Gold Cup which normally takes place in late November.
Another fine Saturday morning, we decided to travel to Windsor and Oxford on our own. From Newbury Racecourse station, we took First Great Western train to London Paddington. Then we took the London tube to go to Windsor.
Windsor is a suburban town in Berkshire, England, known for the Windsor Castle. It is strategically located on the banks of the Thames. Historically, Windsor was a Saxon village which grew into a town owing to its strategic position. Today, it is a developing town with agriculture, mining, construction and manufacturing as the major components of the economy.
Windsor Castle is the largest (covering 13 acres) and oldest occupied castle in the world and is one of the official homes of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. The castle is built on a high chalk ridge, close to what was originally a vital transport link — the river Thames. Windsor Castle’s royal apartments are open every day. But Her Majesty’s private apartments are separate and of course never open to visitors. The rooms are sumptuously decorated and contain many works of art, collected by sovereigns over the last four centuries.
Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House was designed by famous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1924. Many of the miniature contents were made by the manufacturers of the full size article. Even the bottles in the wine cellar contain genuine vintage wine!
I was amazed to see the St George’s Chapel, the place of worship at WindsorCastle. It is the spiritual home of the Knights of the Order of the Garter (the highest order of chivalry, or knighthood, existing in England). Ten sovereigns are buried here. The connection between the Royal Family and St George’s Chapel is a strong one. Members of the Royal Family have been baptised, married and buried in the Chapel.
Membership in the Order is strictly limited and includes the monarch, the Prince of Wales, not more than 24 companion members. Male members of the Order are titled “Knights Companion,” and female members are called “Ladies Companion”. Inside the Main Hall of the church, their heraldic banners hang above the upper stalls of the choir where they have a seat for life.
Another week, we exploredOxford. Oxford is known best as a university town and we see really dilapidated college buildings and clock towers everywhere.
“Where’s the University?” That is one of the most common questions of visitors, who may expect a carefully laid out campus like Kolkata’s Jadavpur University or Rabindrabharati University. But Oxford University is not a homogenous whole, rather it is a collection of independently founded colleges, each with its own history and its own administration.
In the 12th century, English students who studied at the University of Paris, were called back to England and the first English colleges were formed. Many students came to Oxford, but there was a lot of rivalry between different groups. Part of the students then disappeared to Cambridge and found a new university. From then the rivalry between both university cities continued.
All colleges had their own rules and laws and to the outside world they must have looked like closed and snobby communities. The colleges are quite different from each other, in size and styles, but one thing they all have in common: an entrance gate and after it a rectangular inner court. All colleges now offer all disciplines, which was quite different in medieval times, when colleges specialised in a certain branch.
The older colleges were religious foundations, not simply academic. St. John’s College was founded to educate Cistercian monks, New College to supply clergy to replace those who had died in the Black Plague.
It has been a long but very rewarding day and we have seen a lot of interesting places and monuments. Now it is time to take some rest.
My reader friend, did you like this trip with me? ☺
Coming up next: Caught in a Time Warp: A Trip to Bath and Stonehenge