Category Archives: England and U.K.

Unexpected sights/sites in England– palm trees and Stonehenge

“What are all those people doing up there?” my husband asked, pointing to a faraway hillside where a crowd was gathered. We were driving west of London toward Shaftesbury and eventually Lyme Regis in Dorset at the time and just getting used to driving on the left side of the road in a manual car with a leftie stick-shift. Gulp.

As we got closer and closer, we realized that – as we surmised – this was Stonehenge.  We were amazed. We could see it very clearly from the motorway and I crossed it off my list of things to see (it hadn’t been high but I was curious). I’m sure it would be even more impressive if we were closer and it towered over us but we were somewhat awed by seeing it even from a distance.

The other surprising sight came a few days later near the southwest tip of England in southwest Cornwall– around Lands End and Cape Cornwall. Palm trees! In England. Apparently known as the “Cornish Palm.”  (Cordyline australis). Below is one in Penzance.

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Morning in Devon, long drive to London via (Dorset) West Bay, Netherbury and Beaminster/Dorset — goodbye (for now) England 


Devon Airbnb

(a week ago…although it seems much longer…)

We hung around at the Devon farm Airbnb longer than usual, in part, because I needed wifi in order to checkin to my British Air flight 24 hours in advance and change my seat assignment, which as I suspected was a middle seat. (One of the annoying things I discovered about BA is that you can’t pick your own seat without paying $38, more than 24 hours before departing — a bit obnoxious for a round trip flight that cost over $1000…or in my case lots of credit card miles.) But I was happy to kick back, enjoy the lovely breakfast hamper that our host Sarah delivered to our cottage door with fresh homemade granary bread, multi-colored eggs from her chickens, raspberries and strawberries from the garden.

The Airbnb was deep in the countryside, north of Launceton, after a right turn at the pub in St. Giles on the Heath and a drive to the hamlet of Virginstow along another high-hedged, essentially one-lane, winding road that at times made me feel slightly claustrophobic. I generally love country lanes but the ones en this neck of the woods — literally the really wooded ones that form a tunnel, as opposed to the ones through open fields that you generally can’t see due to the hedges — were sometimes spooky, especially at night. (Maybe it’s a good thing I put off reading Daphne De Maurier’s “Jamaica Inn”, a spooky book set near where we stayed in Cornwall, although now I am more interested in finishing it.)

Dirck and I wandered around the farm, past the sheep and “rescue chickens,” the fruit, veg and flowers in the garden, the wood fence and beyond, a bucolic valley of fields stretching far into the distance.

In the church cemetery across the road from our Airbnb, we found a 19th century headstone for a “Betsy,” which was surprising since I rarely see my name anywhere, let alone in England. I also had a nice chat with our 34-year-old host who recently quit city life and a city job i to buy the old farm, fix it up and start the Airbnb (which despite its remote location gets guests from Europe, South America and us Yanks).

The three Airbnbs we’ve stayed at in England were excellent! Part of it may be that I am getting pretty good at picking and I don’t go for the dirt cheap ones (if they even exist) but beyond that, the English hosts seem to be particularly good at hosting and providing a good approximation of the English country life admired by anglophiles like me.

Our drive home was longer than expected, in part because we got waylaid for an hour (argh) in and around Exeter when the nice big A motorway we were on suddenly became a town center traffic jam. We ended up getting out of it by taking another smaller A road in the wrong direction and then having to take a series of tiny no-letter/no-number/high-hedged lanes that often seemed to lead nowhere useful but eventually did. We were amazed at the variety of  roads we traveled on during a short drive and how close they were to each other, from a multi-lane motorway, to a two-lane  (barely) road to a high-hedged lane.

In Dorset, we drove in and out of West Bay, where the TV show Broadchurch is filmed, long enough to see the back of the big sandy beach cliff where some dramatic scenes were shot. Way too many tourists. Fortunately my friend Marion had mentioned a lovely little Dorset village  nearby where she stays, Netherbury, so we sought refuge there. If only it had a pub. By the time we got to the larger town of Beaminster nearby, the pubs weren’t serving lunch any more so we ended up a a little bakery cafe for a few savory tarts.

To get back to our friends’ house in Mortlake, we pulled out the “Sat Nav” which was a big help. (Most of the time I relied on an AZ book of road maps Francine kindly lent us.) Driving in residential southwest London is not easy. The windy streets are narrow and confusing but with the help of “Tracy” (our friends’ name for the Sat Nav voice) we made it to the Mortlake house and even found  a parking spot (several actually) in time to have dinner one last dinner with Una.

This morning, without Tracy’s help, we gave ourselves extra time to drive the rental car to Heathrow  and even though I’d made several screenshots of the google map to Heathrow, we still made a few wrong turns. Fortunately a woman walking her dog at 7:45 a.m on a Sunday morning helped us and we were soon out of the tangle of neighborhood streets and onto the M4, heading to sprawling Heathrow, where we eventually found rental car return signs (near terminal 4 and 5 for future reference) and gladly returned our car.

Heathrow was packed thanks to the start of the school holidays so I was glad to have 2.5 hours of time. BA flight attendants were on strike, which affected our service  (no second meal although the first one included a surprisingly edible Chicken Tikka, scant ice for the drinks, a non-functioning computer map and iffy movie reception).  A few nice touches — free newspapers available before stepping onto the plane so I loaded up on the Times and the Mail (The Observer wasn’t offered but fortunately I’d already bought one.) Goodbye England. I’ll be back.

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Bike riding in Richmond Park, late Sunday lunch with English and Aussie friends

( a few weeks ago….)

Flat out gorgeous weather today, for the first time during this trip. And we put it to good use. Francine and I hopped on bikes and rode a few miles to Richmond Park, which was full of Sunday strollers and riders and deer with antlers moving in great packs. Blue sky, sunshine, light breeze, gravelly dirt paths. We rode the circular path all around the park about 7 miles. It was largely flat except for one big hill. Just  beyond some of the entrance gates I could vaguely see posh brick homes in “The London Borough of Rich People on Thames” (a phrase coined by my friends here…)

This afternoon, Francine’s relatives came for a late lunch and we had a great meal including Pavlova prepared by someone who knows her pavs…Francine’s step mum who lives in Sydney and grew up in New Zealand. (Lesson learned: pile on a lot more fruit than I have done in the past to offset the sweet merengue. Try kiwi as well as berries.)

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The Dove/Hammersmith, Kew Gardens – lovely London

( a week or so ago)



Francine and Russ at Kew

It has been such a treat to ride bikes in London. When I lived here in my early 20s, I rode my bike all over the city but not along the Thames Path, that I can remember. Today, we rode toward Hammersmith from Mortlake (I think we were riding east on the south side of the river but the river is so curvy it’s hard to tell.) I never noticed how beautiful the Hammersmith Bridge was until I walked a bike across it. On the north side of the river, we lucked out with an outside table overlooking the river at The Dove, a great old pub with excellent food (fish and chips, chicken liver “parfait” — pate with sprinkles of pork skin crackle and a dab of homemade applesauce). We chatted with an interesting English couple who just moved back to London after 10 years in D.C

After lunch, we discovered that we’d parked our bikes in front of the William Morris Society — my second encounter with WM and the place offered some interesting sounding  classes or lectures. The bike/walking path was a little harder to follow on the north side but we rode past pretty old houses and boat or athletic clubs and a golf course before crossing Chiswick bridge and riding the path to the Brentford  Gate of Kew Gardens to meet Francine and Russ. We had a scary time trying to cross several lanes of traffic on the bridge so we could get back on the Thames Path (next time, we need to ride across the bridge’s east side.)

Kew was lovely. We had Pimms (a tad overpriced but location, location, location) on patio at The Orangery, overlooking gardens and huge gorgeous trees, visited the crazy clever “hive” – a sculptural depiction of a giant bee hive with lights and soft music somehow aligned with real bee activity in real hives nearby, and took in the veg gardens. Also enjoyed Sackler Bridge –  a pedestrian bridge across a narrow lake. Our only complaint was the signage, especially to out of the way spots like Queen Charlotte’s  cottage. I love London.

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Walk from Port Quin to Port Isaac, drive thru Tintagel, Airbnb in Devon (virganstow), Coombeshead Farm — Devon and Cornwall


Port Isaac dining!

(A few days ago)

We have moved to another beautifully restored barn in a secluded spot — this time in the hamlet of Virganstow near Launceton in Devon. This one is owned by a young woman who moved here from London two years ago with her partner and mother, got some sheep and rescue chickens, does some gardening and DIY stuff and somehow mananges to drive a Mercedes (at least two of them are parked out front.) It’s a peaceful lovely spot, pitch dark at night but somehow we managed to find it after a late night dining at Coombeshead Farm, another out of the way spot about a half hour south near the Cornwall town of Lewwanik.

The place is run by a young chef from London who bought an old stone country manor and cooks completely original food using primarily things foraged from the garden and woods. We sat at a table with about 7 other guests, several American, several staying over night at the restaurant/inn. I can’t begin to describe the food — many of the ingredients were unfamiliar, not to mention the combinations that made up the food but it was all interesting and delicious.


Cornwall Coastal Path

We began the day with another glorious walk along the coastal path, this time walking east to Port Isaac from Port Quin.

We were surprised at how few people we encountered as we walked along the edge of the high jagged coastline. Loved it. We were sad to say goodbye to the lovely couple at our farm Airbnb but lucked out here, where we are staying in grander digs than expected becuz the room we were supposed to stay in had a hot water problem. So here we are with a whole,two,bedroom cottage for the night. Such a fun trip.

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hiking the coastal path to Port Isaac, ferry from Rock to Padstow, Doom Bar beer in the village of Pityme — north Cornwall

1cornwalllandscapeThe rain blew away, the clouds drifted off, the sun shone and my God, north Cornwall! Glorious. After a superb breakfast prepared by our engaging hostess ( homemade muesli, eggs from the next door farm, bacon, sausage, homemade jam, fried tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms and, of course, baked beans). We walked through the gently rolling green pasture, seen out our window, toward the bright blue ocean and picked up the coastal path, walking a few strenuous often steep but spectacular miles into Port Isaac. We passed cows grazing in pastures above jagged cliffs with waves crashing onto the stones and slate, following a path lined with ancient stone walls covered with bramble and patches of shoulder-high grasses and purple flowered thistle. The path was muddy and treacherous at times, especially wending our way downhill but the scenery was well worth it!

1betsycornwallFRom the Port Isaac car park (where we left our car with help from our kind host Michael), we drove to the amusingly named village of Pityme to pick up some tshirts for the kids at the brewery that makes the popular local beer, Doom Bar (another great name…named after a treacherous sandbank in the local Camel estuary.) Then onto the town of Rock (where we were told the young royals vacation)  to take a sweet little ferry across the river, winding through several sandbars to the tourist town of Padstow. Quite a change — pretty place but far more touristy. We had excellent Fish and Chips from the town’s major food entrepreneur Rick Stein, plus ice cream at his deli.

1cornwallwater.JPGOur one misstep was trying to drive to the Lizard, way down in the south, which we realized was too far so we turned back and drove to tiny Port Quinn where we bumped into our host Michael drinking wine with two friends while sitting on a little rocky landing in front of the tiny undeveloped harbor where a few kayakers were finishing for the night. We ended up joining them for some wine and kibitzing. A perfect end to a perfect day.

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St. Ives, Sennon Cove, Lamora, Marizion – West Cornwall!


St Ives

St. Ives was packed with tourists, as feared, but we soon found the older, quieter, lovelier section of town near the Barbara Hepworth Museum, that was charming — narrow, largely car-free streets lined with slate and stone cottages, some with good craft and art galleries or other little enterprises. We bought some Leech Pottery (the inexpensive stuff, not the pricey collectors stuff by master potter Bernard Leech) at St. Ives Ceramics and shared a cream tea at a sweet place called Olive’s Cafe, which also had amazing cakes including a tall chocolate and yellow cake lined with Jaffa Cakes biscuits.



View from Port Isaac airbnb

The drive south and west along the coast from St. Ives was breathtaking, again on impossibly narrow streets past stone cottage built right along the road that also goes along a cliff. Most drivers shared the road calmly, backing up or scrunching over when need be but we did have a showdown with an older couple who didn’t want to back up (when they could — and we couldn’t) so that was awkward and a few other Brits weren’t impressed with our halting style of driving, especially at round abouts. DIrck did a great job, considering all the challenges (including my constant backseat driving “you’re too close to the left…slow down, move to the right…you could go faster here…”)

HIghlights included fish and chips, sitting at a picnic tables with British holiday makers in Sennon Cove, dipping into the woods to visit another hidden cove (this one tiny and secluded) in Lamorna, and standing along the sea at Marazion, gazing out at St. Michael by the Sea — and thinking our son will soon be visiting the French version, Mont. St. Michelle. Sad to leave this beautiful house by the sea but feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to come here.

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Boscastle, Port Isaac, Port Gaverne — Cornwall,at long last!




Even steady, at times, heavy rain did not dampen our enthusiasm once we arrived in Cornwall after a quicker than expected drive (about 2 hours from Lyme on bigger roads than expected). Amazing how quickly the landscape and architecture changed from Dorset.  Suddenly we were driving on incredibly narrow winding road that seemed almost sunken, with high stone and shrubbery walls. Occasionally, the road would be high enough to see a startling valley with a patchwork of crops lining a hill and then the sea beyond.

 WE drove to the classic seaside village of Boscastle and walked along the one narrow street that led to a small harbor with few boats — an estuary that was more like  a narrow river between two jagged grass-lined land masses jutting out into the ocean. We climbed some slate outcroppings to get a better view but they were slick with rain so we backed down. We stayed long enough to have a cream tea and try a steak and potato pastie to admire the youth hostel in a stone building (which is where I would have gladly stayed 37 years ago) and shop in the national trust store.


Port Isaac Airbnb

Our Airbnb is spectacular — a very old stone farmhouse atop a broad green field with grazing cattle overlooking the see. Virginia, the owner, greeted us with a hug when we arrived after driving along a rutted muddy dirt road leading from the turn off to Port Gaverne. Our room is huge and gorgeous with a bed that could fit a family of four, timber beams, tea and shortbread laid out on the windowsill, and windows with glorious views  that will be even better tomorrow when the rain passes. Can’t imagine what this place looks like under blue skies. We hung out for awhile with Virginia and her husband Michael, watching Wimbledon and chatting.

Tonight we had a superb dinner at Nathan Outlaw’s Fish House in lovely Port Isaac, which has narrow winding streets lined with grey stone houses, some painted white. The dinner was tapas — all fish prepared a variety of  ingenious ways and served in very old house overlooking the small harbor. I love this place.

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Shaftesbury, Lyme Regis– Dorset!



 It took awhile for dirck to adjust to driving on the “wrong” side of the road, with a left hand stick shift (or gear shift as the Brits say) not to mention very narrow roads but we made it here to lovely Lyme Regis, on the Jurassic coast in Dorset where we are staying at a sweet little studio apartment Airbnb way up on a hill overlooking the bay.

We walked down the hill after arriving around 5:30 p.m. to the sound of seagulls and took the coastal path which has glorious views of the high grassy dunes lining the shore on the distance. The colors of the sky, shore and sea are stunning, all pale blues and tans plus vivid green and huge pink hydrangeas popping out everywhere.


Lyme Regis

The coastal path leads along the shoreline past a rocky beach and a sandy beach where people were swimming to the town center with narrow streets rising up from the water, lined with old storefronts. We walked through a gorgeous terraced garden above “the Cobb” — the high sea wall that juts out into the water, made famous by the novel The French lieutenant’s Woman.” I was here 30 some years ago but hardly remember the place. And I think it’s changed a lot.

We splurged on dinner at Hix Oyster and Fish, said to be one of the best Dorset restaurants. It’s in a glass walled modern room (almost Scandinavian feeling) of a house next to the terraced gardens and overlooking the bay and Cobb. We had lightly battered oysters, baked creamy crab and shared Lyme Turbot, beautifully served on a rough dark wood board, with a delicious seaweedy type green, and finished with a small scoop of house-made raspberry sorbet. We walked through the quiet town and way up the hill to our Airbnb (6 charmouth close) feeling happy to be here.

Earlier we,stopped briefly in the pretty market town of shaftsbury, where we had a basic ploughmans with local country ham at King Alfred’s, in a low ceilinged timbered room and admired the valley view from the pretty gardens near the town’s elegant abbey.

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Pickle & Rye (Mortlake), Barnes Fair — London

We met a fellow Iowan, Val, who co-owns the popular Pickle & Rye “American sandwich shop” near Mortlake station. Great to see the business she runs with her husband Alex (from Philly) doing so well. Since my last visit four years ago, they have moved to a bigger space and it was full of people eating Saturday morning breakfast (English and American varieties). Val had just returned from a visit home to Grinnell and Des Moines. She kindly gave us a complementary order of light, fluffy pancakes, which were new to our English pals who eat at the restaurant regularly.

Then on to neighboring Barnes for the annual fair, which we last went to about 13 years ago. It seems to have mushroomed in size. Francine and Una were busy at the “I love Mortlake” tent (a community action group keeping an eye on a new controversial local land development) so D and I happily sat in the garden at the busy pub, The Sun Inn, drinking beer and Pimms and soaking in the sun. We shopped  at the Barnes farmers market and later at Waitrose for dinner that I made for the gang. 

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