Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May 5: Coach Tour to Leeds Castle, Canterbury Cathedral, Dover

This morning began earlier than others as we needed to make it to Victoria Coach Station by 8:30 in order to board an Evan Evans coach tour to Leeds Castle, Canterbury, and Dover.  After some bit of confusion between the Euston Square underground station and the very nearby Euston underground station, we made it intact to the coach station at around 8:15.  We boarded at 8:45 and were off slightly before 9.  Our guide, the extremely enunciated Marc, and our driver, the quiet but good Martin (who I nicknamed St Martin at the Wheel - echoing the church by Trafalgar Square, St Martin's in the Fields) led the way as we disembarked London.  

Marc provided interesting and witty commentary for most of the journey from Victoria Station to Greenwich with additional bits as we approached the stops.  Whilst driving through Greenwich, he mentioned we would be passing the Prime Meridian, heading, for the first time in my life into the eastern hemisphere.  "Don't worry, you won't feel anything", he reassured.  

Our first stop was Leeds Castle, built in 1119 by Robert De Crevecouer.  In 1278, the castle became a royal palace for King Edward I and his queen, Eleanor of Castile.  It remained a royal palace through the days of Henry VIII and was used extensively by his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.  Later, the castle was owned by the Culpeper family (who, in siding with the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War, allowed the castle to escape destruction) and finally, 300 years later in 1926, it was purchased by Lady Baillie who redecorated the castle and set up the trust that ultimately led to it being opened to the public in 1976.  

The picturesque castle, set partially on a lake-island amidst rolling hills of green, was very accessible and well-cared for.  Most rooms were viewable on the self-guided tour and were furnished as it was upon the death of Lady Baillie (in addition to many items left in place over the centuries, namely, the walls).  In addition to the castle, the grounds hold spacious gardens, an aviary, a golf course, a maze, and, strangely, a dog collar museum (which was not visited by us, but, in retrospect, should have been).  

After re-boarding the coach promptly at 12:45 (Marc: "If you are not on the coach at 12:45, a taxi could come collect you and take you to Maidstone where there is train service to London.  People think I'm joking when I say this; I'm not."), we headed for Canterbury to see, primarily, Canterbury Cathedral, built in 1077 on the site of  2 former cathedrals.  The first of these was founded by St Augustine in 602 after being sent by Pope Gregory the Great in 597 as a missionary to the Anglo-Saxons.  

Once the coach arrived in Canterbury, Marc took great repetitive and enunciative pains to make sure we knew to return to "the Bus Stay-shun" for our coach and not the coach station which is evidently somewhere else altogether.  All together now: the Bus Stay-shun.  With these pertinent details firmly engrained, we headed towards the cathedral, clocking in at 297 feet at its highest point and composed of Norman and Gothic styles, set just off the city center.  

In addition to being the cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury (leader of the Church of England and the worldwide Anglican Communion), the burial site of Henry IV and his wife, and also that of the Black Prince, it is probably most famous for being the site of the murder of Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162-1170, Thomas Becket.  Becket was murdered by 4 knights who interpreted, literally, Henry II's supposed utterance:

"Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?"  Or, variously:

"Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?"

"What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and brought up in my household, who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric?"

Regardless, the knights set off and shortly before Evensong on December 29, 1170, Becket's head met with the blades of the knights' swords (for more on this, including an eyewitness account: http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/becket.htm).  The exact spot of the murder is marked by a hanging sword sculpture in an area of the cathedral known as the Martyrdom.  

If all this wasn't enough, according to Marc, the cathedral is home to around 1/2 of all surviving medieval stained glass in England, which was viewed with immense pleasure.  After about 2.5 hours in Canterbury, including a pause to eat some terribly bland fish & chips (me) and equally tasteless chicken (Dan), we headed for our final stop, Dover, home to the imposing White Cliffs and Dover Castle.  

We arrived at Dover around 30 minutes later, de-coached, and took to the stony beach for a brief 20 minute stretch.  The views were very nice, though France decided to pull down the shades and was not viewable across the Channel.  After indulging in a vanilla ice cream cone and throwing a couple of stones into the sea, we re-coached and headed back to London, arriving around 6:30.  

In all, it was an enjoyable trip through the countryside of Kent and to the coast.  We arrived back at the hotel somewhat tired and decided to take in some football (Manchester United vs. Arsenal) on the tele whilst perusing the internet on our respective laptops.  

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