Two sublime day trips from London

london-day-trip

A few days into a recent 8-day trip to London I was spent. This followed Portobello Road and Covent Garden shopping sprees, a delicious Guinness-oyster pie at Borough Market, a night of clubbing in Shoreditch (the masterful DJ Carl Craig spun at Plastic People), and a day of intensive art immersion (including Christian Marclay’s excellent film “The Time” at the White Cube gallery). The perfect palliative to minding too many gaps and aching blistered dogs proved to be two sublime daytrips.

The picturesque medieval town of Lewes, about an hour south of London, is set on a hill above the River Ouse. Its winding cobblestone streets, lined with locavore-minded restaurants, traditional pubs serving locally-brewed ales, unique boutiques and antiquarians, lead up to the ruins of an 11th century Norman Castle. The town’s charms have attracted many, including Virginia Woolf, American patriot Thomas Paine, and the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts, but my primary motivation for this jaunt was timing.

Each November fifth, for the past 405 years, Lewes has celebrated the fire-filled British holiday of Guy Fawkes Night with more fervor and pageantry than anywhere in the U.K. The evening’s incendiary bacchanalia includes throngs of torch-wielding and elaborately-costumed marchers, young men racing through town towing barrels of burning tar, whole roasted pigs on spits and massive bonfires. The holiday, which commemorates a foiled-attempt in 1605 to overthrow the British Government (and is rooted in ancient pagan rituals), is like nothing you will find in London.

%Gallery-111983%The same can be said for the Cotswalds, the gorgeous west-central English countryside roughly an hour-and-a-half west of the capital. This officially designated “Area of Outstanding Beauty” lives up to its billing with gentle rolling hills, idyllic villages and ornate churches built with indigenous honey-hued limestone. Here there are still single-lane roads slicing through pastoral farmlands dotted with sheep and thatched-roof houses.

The best way to take-in the Cotswolds is by car, which you can easily rent in the nearby town of Oxford. Driving on the left side for most Americans is certainly a challenge; but not nearly as treacherous as avoiding the brightly plumed pheasants swooping down kamikaze-like towards my oncoming windshield. My route along the northern half of the area’s famed Romantic Road provided an excellent overview. This included stops in Woodstock where I glimpsed the grand Blenheim Palace; Grand Tew, a speck of a village (pop. 152) with a 16th century pub; Bourton-on-the-Water, a.k.a. “The Venice of the Cotswolds;” and the wondrous Broadway Tower, a small 18th century castle that once served as a refuge for Arts & Crafts movement founder William Morris.

%Gallery-111984%

In the last decade the Cotswolds, much like the Hamptons, have become a haven for London’s boldface names. The likes of Lily Allen, Damien Hirst, Kate Winslet and Stella McCartney regularly come here to escape London’s bustle and recharge their batteries. There’s no reason lesser-known individuals on extended urban safaris can’t do the same-it certainly made my Indian food in Islington the next evening that much tastier.

GETTING THERE:
God save the Queen, and London to be sure, but for excursions outside the sprawling capital, God save Britain’s National Rail. It is user friendly, affordable and surprisingly comfortable. You can easily purchase same-day round trip tickets. London’s Victoria Station to Lewes and back costs about $32; London Paddington to Oxford is $42. A rental car via EasyCar, a subsidiary of the low cost air-carrier EasyJet, cost about $75. The rental agency is located a block from the Oxford train station and operates through Avis.

Top five best castles of Yorkshire


Yorkshire has always been a troubled region of England. It was on the front line of fighting between the English and the Scots and saw lots of action in the English Civil War, when the forces of Parliament under Oliver Cromwell fought the Royalists supporting King Charles I. Because of this, many castles dot the landscape, including some of the most magnificent the country has to offer. Here are five of the best.

York Castle
Dominating the skyline of the city of York is this unusual fortification, often referred to as Clifford’s Tower. The first fort here was built by the Normans in 1068 and was a motte-and-bailey castle. A wooden stockade and tower sat atop a large artificial mound. Around the base of the mound was another enclosure protected by a moat and wooden stockade. Motte-and-bailey castles were cheap and quick to build and provided sufficient protection against the rather basic siege techniques of the time. The Normans threw up hundreds of these in the years immediately following their conquest of England.

In 1190 the castle sheltered the city’s Jewish population during an antisemitic riot started by a man who owed money to a Jewish moneylender and didn’t feel like paying it back. The castle warden let the Jews hide there, but when he went out to talk to the mob the Jews wouldn’t let him back in, fearing the townsmen would swarm in with him. The warden lost patience and called out the militia, which besieged the castle. The tower caught fire and the Jews committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the mob. About 500 people died.

Like many motte-and-bailey castles, the wooden tower was eventually replaced with stone, in this case an odd design of four semicircles. The rounded walls helped deflect shots from catapults and in 1644 proved useful against cannon too. Local Royalist forces held out against a Parliamentarian army for several weeks before finally surrendering when it became apparent that no help was coming.

%Gallery-105786%


Raby Castle
Unlike most English castles, this one’s still lived in. It’s been the residence of the Lord Barnard since 1626 but actually was built by the Neville family in the 14th century. In 1569, seven hundred knights gathered in the great hall to plot the overthrow of Queen Elizabeth I and install a Catholic monarch. The Rising of the North, as it was called, was quickly crushed, and many of its leaders executed. The Neville family saw their castle and lands confiscated and the property was eventually transferred to the Barnard dynasty.

While this imposing castle and its beautiful grounds are private property, it is still possible to visit Raby Castle at certain times of the year. The rooms have decorations from various periods and include many fine works of art from famous artists such as Teniers the Younger and Van Dyck. Make sure to take a stroll in the 200 acre deer park, with its own herds of deer that have been grazing here since Norman times.

Raby Castle is actually in County Durham, but it’s a quick drive from York and too good to miss.

Bolton Castle
Less grandiose than Raby Castle, the castle at Bolton is more geared towards defense. Finished in 1399, it looks like a solid block of stone with four square towers. While the walls were good for keeping people out, they were also good for keeping people in. Elizabeth I kept her Catholic rival Mary Queen of Scots here as a prisoner.

During the English Civil War the owner of the castle supported the king. Most of Yorkshire was Royalist, like the city of York itself, so the region became a prime target for the armies of Parliament. A Parliamentary force besieged the castle but, despite having artillery, weren’t able to take it. The defenders held out for a year and only gave up in 1645 after running out of food. The scars from the cannonballs can still be seen.

Skipton Castle
Another strong fortress is Skipton Castle. Like York and Bolton castles, it also withstood a siege during the English Civil War, but this time for three years. Looking at it you can see why. It started out in 1090 as a motte-and-bailey, but soon developed into a massive stone stronghold. So massive, in fact, that nobody dared attack it until those pesky Parliamentarians decided to try their luck in 1643. Not even cannons could break the walls and three years later the Royalist garrison was still holding out. All other Royalist resistance in Yorkshire had crumbled and the defenders finally agreed to an honorable surrender.

Despite its ill treatment at the hands of Oliver Cromwell’s men, Skipton Castle remains one of the best preserved castles in England. The fabulous gatehouse, towers, and Tudor-era courtyard really give a feel for what it was like in the not-so-good old days. It’s all very impressive, but I wouldn’t want to be stuck there for three years!

Ripley Castle
Like Raby Castle, Ripley Castle is a private residence but open to the public. This stately home been in the Ingilby family since it was built in 1309. It’s amazing they managed to hold onto it considering they remained committed Catholics when England became Protestant. One Ingilby was executed in 1586 for inciting a Catholic rebellion. Other members of the family were important members in the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, who persecuted Catholics. The family played a very dangerous political game but they were good at it. They even had a secret room for their priest to hide in so nobody knew they were still keeping the old faith. They also had a hand in the Gunpowder Plot to blow up James I and all of Parliament and make England Catholic again. Even after the plot failed and Guy Fawkes was executed they still managed to wriggle their way out of trouble and keep their castle.

Ripley Castle is famous for its beautiful gardens and deer park as well as its historic interior. You’ll see a room that used to be a British navy ship, a sumptuous dining room, and take in sweeping views of the countryside from the drawing room. The library is much as it was when Jane Ingilby held Oliver Cromwell at gunpoint and took him prisoner. Cromwell escaped, of course, yet despite him leading the Parliamentary forces to victory and taking power, the family still kept their castle!