Roman Bath

Lying in the heart of the city the Bath are remnants of ancient luxurious villas, baths and other important amenities of the ancient world that were constructed by the Romans around 70 AD. The remains of the now so-called ‘Roman Bath’ tells the story of seven thousand years of human activity in England.

Bathing was indeed a central part of the Roman society. It was the peak of ancient sophisticated leisure, and more importantly, of cleanliness. Long after the collapse of the Roman Empire, we know from historical records that even the most noble and high ranking people in the British society, or Europe for that matter, were distinctly grubby looking and smelly (why do you think the French created perfumes? LOL! The technological know-how of fragrance making grew out of that need to cover up the stench). Yes, the Romans were highly sophisticated, at least back at the pinnacle of the empire.

Roman baths and bathing culture influenced not just the spas and baths we know today. Where significant structures remain today, as in parts of England like Leicester (where the bones of Richard II were dug up and reburied at the Cathedral in 2012), and especially in Bath, they have become great visitor attractions. Bath, with its bathhouses restored almost close to its former glory, is probably the most famous of all ancient Roman baths. It also boasts of having the most intact Roman underground water system remaining in Europe today. The Romans did put importance on water and the engineering behind them, of bathing and cleanliness. The role of the baths in Roman life is significantly visible for anyone who visited this ancient Roman City of Bath in England.

Visitors to the city will find out what the Roman traditions and constructions have left, also about their way of life and the unique and fascinating history of baths and bathing.  Of course, the fate of these baths and the decline of the Roman Empire is a totally different story, and it’s something I won’t discuss here. 🙂 

I first visited Bath when my mother came for a visit in the summer of 2003. It is a fascinating place and has become one of my favourites cities in England. Anyone interested in ancient history and what the Romans have left for the British society today, I’d highly recommend they visit this ancient city. The Roman traditions and constructions, their way of life and the unique and fascinating history of baths and bathing are indeed remarkable. It’s such a beautiful place, the historical sites are all within a walking distance from one another, and you can visit them in one day. Also, the nearby towns and villages are very charming, so picturesque that they’re all ‘Instagram-worthy.’ I wanna share some photos of our last visit to Roman Bath, and I’d let the photos speak for themselves. 

The hotel we stayed in (Francis Hotel, part of Sofitel chain) has their bathrooms decorated with a massive Roman Bath photo as if they’re trying to make the guest imagine while they’re in the bathtub that they’re doing exactly what the Romans loved to do. LOL!

*Here’s another post about Bath, it’s history and architecture.

Winston Churchill Exhibition and Memorial Garden at Blenheim Palace

Britain’s war-time Prime Minister Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace, his family ancestral home, on the 30th of November 1874.  Churchill Exhibition is a dedicated exhibition to give visitors a real sense of the great war-time leader and most famous member of the Churchill family.  It was opened in 2015 to mark the 50th anniversary of Sir Winston Churchill’s death. Continue reading “Winston Churchill Exhibition and Memorial Garden at Blenheim Palace”

Bath – Worth a Visit for its History and Architecture

Our visit to Bath in February was a welcome antidote to the creeping suspicion that we are getting a little too tired of London.  Although Jared and I endeavour to do something outdoorsy, and we go out of town on a regular basis to break the monotony, but we just wanted a real change of scenery, and the sense of being far, yet not too far away from London. We’ve chosen Bath in Somerset, England — simply because the place ticks off almost all the boxes for a brief respite from all the hustle and bustle of city life.  Continue reading “Bath – Worth a Visit for its History and Architecture”

Recent Visit to the British Library

The British Library (BL) is one of my favourite places to hang out in London. I may sound eccentric to some people but hey, I make no apologies for having penchant for libraries and bookshops. 🙂 Since I moved to London, I’ve made numerous visit to the BL, mostly on my own, or sometimes with some visiting family and friends. I haven’t been there in a long time and last week I got to visit again. The highlight of the visit was meeting Patricia Lovett, a renowned English calligrapher and author (she was awarded the MBE ‘Member of the British Empire’ for services to heritage crafts and calligraphy). I have a copy of her recent book ‘The Art and History of Calligraphy’ and learned a lot from it. She happened to be conducting a workshop at the BL on Saturday, and she was very accommodating and sweet in showing me the work she was doing there. I am very much interested in attending one of her workshops soon, hopefully before the summer months. Continue reading “Recent Visit to the British Library”

VISIT TO A HISTORIC BUILDING IN LONDON

Often referred to simply as the Foreign Office, but officially called Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), has been on my long list of places to visit in London but the building is only open to the public once a year for a day or two. Last year they only opened for one day, and it fell on the Lord’s Day which I obviously missed. This year however, it was for a couple of days, Saturday and Sunday, and I finally got to visit and really enjoyed it. This building was mentioned in a book I’ve read about the famous Victorian artists, and George Gilbert Scott, the architect who designed one of my favourite buildings in London, St Pancras Hotelwas also responsible for the overall classical design of this building.

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 The main entrance is in King Charles Street facing the Treasury Building where the Churchill War Room is located (it’s a bunker that Winston Churchill and his government took shelter and held 115 Cabinet Meetings throughout the Second World War). 

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Britain didn’t have a Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs until 1782. The first Foreign Secretary, Charles James Fox, was appointed in 1782 but the building where the current Foreign Office stands was not constructed until 1861. It was completed in 1868 as part of the new block of government offices which included the India Office and later the Colonial and Home Offices.  In collaboration with Matthew Digby Wyatt, the India Office’s Surveyor, who designed and constructed the interior of the India Office, George Gilbert Scott was responsible for the overall classical design of the building.

THE DURBAR COURT

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The FCO staff who welcomed us at the courtyard before the tour started mentioned from the beginning that, “This was built at the peak of the British Empire’s domination around the world and Scott designed this building as a kind of national palace or drawing room for the nation with the use of rich decoration to impress foreign visitors.”  Apparently the original design included fountains in the Durbar Court but proved impossible to install, so Wyatt settled instead for patterned marble imported from 3 European countries – Greece, Italy and Belgium, suggesting flowing water.

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Around the 3rd storey of the Durbar court are artistic busts of great men from British India.

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THE GRAND STAIRCASE

The three-storey high Grand Staircase is one of the most recognisable, and I’d say, the most spectacular area of the whole building. This is where the foreign dignitaries are seen on tv or newspaper being welcomed by the Foreign Secretary before they are brought to one of the rooms. The dome above is decorated by female figures representing countries which had diplomatic relations with Britain when it was constructed in the 1860s. The dome and the stencilled walls and ceilings were the work of Clayton and Bell, one of the most prolific English workshops of stained glass during the latter half of the 19th century and early 20th century.

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The murals on the first floor depict the origin, education, development, expansion and triumph of the British Empire.

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THE GRAND RECEPTION ROOMS — Lucarno Suite, Dining Room and Conference Room

It was designed by Scott with so much grandeur to showcase the wealth and influence of the British empire.  It has elaborate and lavish use of gold, red and blue from floor to ceiling.

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The rooms are used for diplomatic dinners, conferences and receptions.

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THE MUSE STAIRCASE

Designed by Wyatt, the staircase leads up to the office of the Secretary of India but was taken over by the Crown later on. There’s two portraits of Napoleon III and his wife Eugenie at the top of the stairs. Eugenie became a lifelong friend of Queen Victoria and when the couple were dethroned  they moved to England and settled in Kent. The portraits were donated to the Foreign Office by the Bonapartes to express their gratitude to the British Government for their help in the Paris Exhibition of 1867.

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The octagonal glass ceiling has beautiful stone carvings of so-called ‘Goddesses of Plenty’ surrounded by cherubs. There’s plenty of natural light here and it’s an even more attractive ceiling than the Grand Staircase.

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The building is full of ornate mouldings, fireplaces, beautiful wood/stone carvings, and many other unique features.

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Due to years of neglect, the building fell into ruins although it was continually used as offices. In the 1960s, when the socialist/leftist government took over and the abhorrence of anything ‘Victorian’ was very popular, there was a proposal to demolish the building but there was a public outcry so the plans have been shelved. The government ordered for the whole building to be fixed and refurbished which took decades to accomplish but it turned out, according to the tour guide, that it saved the government so much money than they’d have spent for demolition. While listening to her, it made me realise that some people in the British government didn’t care much about their heritage. And it makes me feel sad that just like the previous generation, young Brits today do not know, much less care about their history. The prevailing culture is seemingly hostile to the old British values; the Judeo-Christian ethos that this country used to have is completely lost. I thought to myself, ‘I’m so glad the government leaders who proposed the demolition of this building didn’t win. Or else, it would have been a great loss to the nation.’ As a history buff, I was very much in awe seeing the handiwork of the Victorians. If I was that impressed today, I can only imagine that everyone who walked into this building back in the Victorian-Edwardian era would have left the premises with so much reverence and admiration for the British Empire. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to visit this historic building.

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At the end of the tour we were introduced to Palmerston — the resident cat who’s tasked to wage war on mice and eradicate the rodents in the building. He was sleeping safe and sound probably exhausted from chasing a massive mice while everyone was trying to take a photo of him.

ISLE OF WIGHT EXPERIENCE

Osborne House, the royal seaside palace on the Isle of Wight, is the main reason why I wanted to visit this island. I came across some details about this place many years ago while reading the book Queen Victoria: A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert. 

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This island is easy to get to from London, less than 2 hours by car, bus or train and then via ferry from Southampton docks.  The diamond-shaped island is situated just off England’s south coast and is referred to as the Diamond of the South. It has been one of Europe’s most fashionable holiday destination since the 18th Century when it became a favourite weekend retreat for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

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My friend Kristine and I got to visit the island about a month ago. We were hoping to explore Osborne House but sadly, we didn’t get to do it.

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Upon arrival, our first destination was the western tip of the island called The Needles. The place is pretty much like a leisure park but the highlight was the chairlift (ski lift) to the beach to see Alum Bay’s brightly coloured sands. We got a quick glimpse of the stunning scenery especially on our way up but because I am acrophobic (that is, fear of heights), the very high & steep ride down was quite frightening for me. I had to tightly close my eyes and hold on to the bar for dear life as I felt the significant huge drop to the ground haha!

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 We had lunch at one of the restaurants here then we drove around Tennyson Down through the villages of Freshwater and Freshwater Bay.

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The quintessential English thatched roof cottages can be seen all over the island.

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There were also some very modern ‘East Hampton style’ cottages.

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I asked our tour guide what’s the population of the island and her only response was, “Nobody really knows the exact population because a lot of homeowners are only here for the summer or the weekend.”  Then we drove along the military road towards the southern tip of the island. The stunning scenery made the half an hour drive a little bit more enjoyable. 

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There were hikers, cyclists and campers all over the island.

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Camp sites abound with loads of caravans and tents.

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We stopped to enjoy the views at St. Catherine’s Point, the island’s southernmost tip.

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It was a gorgeous day but quite windy.

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FYI, Kristine and I didn’t talk about twinning, we just happened to wear the same Breton stripe T-shirts. St. Catherine’s Point was our last stop instead of Osborne House. We were 5 minutes away from Queen Victoria’s seaside palace when the tour guide asked the driver to turn around because of the little traffic on the way there. Only to be told, as soon as we got to East Cowes docks, that the ferry was delayed for half an hour. For some reason, the 30-min delay turned out to be a long two hour wait. It was too late to turn around as loads of vehicles were already on a queue behind us.

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The tour guide should have made a phone call before she made the decision to cancel the Osborne House tour but she didn’t. So for two hours we sat on the bus, got up to stretch, walked a bit, had snacks, and sat down again bored out of our wits haha!

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Nevertheless, we had a great time. The island has its own unique charm and is worth visiting. It would be nice to visit again in the spring/summer of next year and stay for a night or two. Joining a tour group wasn’t too bad. It was a tour company recommended by a Japanese friend of mine and her experience was significantly different from ours. Her group was able to visit Osborne House and an old village in East Cowes — both places were in our itinerary but they changed it at the last minute. There were only a dozen of us in the group excluding the tour guide and the driver. For anyone interested to visit the island, I’d suggest you either drive, take the train or bus (don’t join a day-tour) and stay on the island for a night or two. (I gotta drag Jared to do this with me next summer.  )

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I look forward to visiting Isle of Wight again. Hopefully, to do some camping and hiking. And of course, to explore Osborne House so I can finally tick it off of my bucket list.

SHAKESPEARE COUNTRY

Stratford-upon-Avon is one of my favourite places in England. Jared took me there the first time when I first arrived in London and then we took another trip with a group of people from our church back in 2003. Then about three weeks ago Jared and I once again visited this medieval town and revelled in its history, charm and beauty.

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Stratford-upon-Avon is synonymous with William Shakespeare. The famous English writer was born and grew up in this ancient market town in the mid-1500s. For someone from a far-flung country like myself  who did read ‘Romeo and Juliet’ growing up, it is fascinating to walk around the little street where Shakespeare was born and wandered as a young boy. Seeing the house where he was born and all the wooden buildings that are still standing today during his time is such an amazing experience.

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Above photo is a huge house now called “Shakespeare’s Centre” — the part on the left side was the family home where Shakespeare was born in an upper room in 1564 (apparently there’s no record of his exact birth date). The building has the original floor which William walked around on.  The part on the right side was the workshop and shop where William’s father, John Shakespeare, made and sold his gloves.

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Shakespeare’s face, name, etc., is everywhere as you walk around town.

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On our visit last month we visited Anne Hathaway’s Cottage (above photo) for the first time. It is the childhood home of Shakespeare’s wife. Our tour guide shared with us a story how William would walk just about everyday for an hour from his house to get to Anne’s home when he was courting her (today it’s about ten minutes drive to get from Shakespeare House Museum to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage).

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Just like the Shakespeare House Museum, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage has a beautiful garden and if you visit in the summer months, it is absolutely beautiful with all types of flowers in full bloom.

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Another historic house to visit in this ancient market town is the ‘Harvard House’ — home of a Christian minister, John Harvard (1607–1638), one of the founding fathers of the famous Harvard University. Interestingly, John Harvard’s maternal grandfather Thomas Rogers (1540–1611), was a contemporary and associate of Shakespeare’s father. Both men served on the Borough Council.

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I am totally captivated by this 500+ year-old house — the wood carvings, the door with iron work details, its original owners, and just about everything about this building is  fascinating.  

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 The black and white building on the left was the school where Shakespeare studied as a little boy; it is now a hotel but the facade is the exact same structure during his time. Notice the street was also that wide in the 15th century.

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Anywhere you go around town the famous writer’s name is visible.

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I absolutely love all of these black and white Elizabethan houses.

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There’s charming little tea houses and coffee shops dotted around the town centre.

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As we were leaving I noticed this cute little shop with Christmas tree and other ornaments and I was reminded of home. Back in the Philippines, as soon as September hits you’ll see Christmas decors in the malls.

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I always recommend to our family and friends to include Stratford-upon-Avon in their itinerary. Visiting this old town will give visitors the taste of old England and real ‘Englishness’ — if such a thing even exist today. This country has lost its identity and people have no more sense of history and appreciation of its own heritage, but it’s a topic for another day. 

Note: Here’s my previous post about our visit to other towns and villages in the Cotswolds.

CHARMING VILLAGES IN THE COTSWOLDS

Note:My previous post about our Cotswolds exploration was the visit to a historic town referred to as the ‘Gateway to the Cotswolds.’

The Cotswolds were declared an area of outstanding natural beauty in 1966. It is a rural landscape just over an hour drive from Britain’s capital city; it contains medieval stone-built villages, towns, stately homes and gardens, and it is indeed one of England’s most picturesque places. There are loads of quaint villages that dot the hillside with some fairy tale like settings. Jared and I have visited Blenheim Palace together for the first time last summer and we continued on this Cotswolds journey visiting a new place every chance we get.

The villages are typically the sort of romantic English scene with stunning views looking out to the countryside in the distance. The houses are made of old timber and local stone with medieval churches and rivers running through them. Visiting these places remind me of Enid Mary Blyton and her books. The beautiful scenery looks like the images that jumped out of the pages of her children’s books I so loved and enjoyed reading as a little girl. Bibury, Castle Combe and Bourton-on-the-Water (the Venice of the Cotswolds) are just some of the prettiest villages I’ve visited in the Cotswolds.

I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

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BURFORD, THE GATEWAY TO THE COTSWOLDS

The Cotswolds is one of Britain’s most picturesque places located in south central England about 800 square miles in land area and comprises a range of rolling hills that runs through five counties — Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire.  It is the favourite country retreat of the rich and famous — Kate Moss, Kate Winslet, Elizabeth Hurley, Prime Ministers Tony Blair and David Cameron and many other prominent figures in Britain own a Grade II-listed country pile in this part of England. 

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One of the pleasures of visiting the Cotswolds is like traveling back in time — practically walking down the same roads that the Romans originally built —  and exploring the different medieval towns and villages, each with its own unique identity, yet all with those distinct and prominent Cotswold attributes such as the ‘wolds’ (old English for rolling hills), unspoilt ancient villages with historic churches, yellow-golden stone and thatched roof cottages, medieval market place, antique shops, etc.

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VISIT TO BURFORD

Burford, a little town often referred to as the ‘Gateway to the Cotswolds’, is just 19 miles west of Oxford, and well worth the visit. It is originally a fortified Anglo-Saxon ford which later became a wealthy wool town.

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Burford’s little village atmosphere even on the main high street is quite astonishing.

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The famous High Street runs downhill towards a medieval bridge with a tiny river called ‘River Windrush’ and both sides of the street is lined by impressive ancient shops and houses.

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There’s also plenty of chic accommodation, quirky shops and shopping to be had on the high street.

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You can even head off the beaten track and explore the wonderful alleyways and side streets to unearth hidden gems such as charming cottages and beautiful courtyards.

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It has a very impressive architecture of all the High Streets I’ve seen in Britain — the stylish antique shops, restaurants, pubs and tea shops are simply incredible.

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The 16th century Tolsey building (picture below), was once the meeting place for medieval merchants, now a museum is a delightful place to visit for anyone interested in looking into Bruford’s industrial past.

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Another real gem with many interesting memorials showcasing some of Burford’s historic past is St. John the Baptist Church. The ‘Burford Levellers Martyrs’ have interesting memorial plaques in the church along with some of Burford’s great families such as King Henry VIII’s barber-surgeon. (The so-called ‘Burford Levellers’ started in this little town and grew out of the conflict between King Charles I — who believed on the divine right of the king — and the Parliament — representing a demand for the sharing of power. The conflict eventually led to the infamous English civil war in 1642–9. Some of Oliver Cromwell’s army, who were besieged in the church in 1649 watched from the roof of the church as their ringleaders were executed in the churchyard.)

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Image: St John the Baptist Parish

This little town also has the distinguished claim of having the oldest pharmacy in Britain, Reavley’s, which opened in 1734.

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Burford is indeed one gorgeous English town where you can spend hours gawking at the beauty of every building, each shop and all the cottages you pass.

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Little changed over the centuries in this little town, and it has so much character and history.

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It is a popular destination for its beauty, history, antique shops and other attractions.

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Almost all of the houses I’ve seen have a name inscribed on the doorway and have old wooden door I truly love and wish to have. Told Jared numerous times that if we ever build a house somewhere, anywhere in the world, I’d like to have a similar one or an original door of an old English church building that closed down. 

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You can visit the hotel frequented by King Charles II and his mistress, the English actress Nell Gwynn, and also where Lord Nelson used to dine.

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The three medieval bridges match with all of the old buildings.

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 As you walk downhill on the High Street you can see the stunning view of the rolling hills to remind you that you’re indeed in one of England’s historic ‘wolds’.

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Spring and summer months is the perfect time to visit the Cotswolds. The scenery is simply stunning; whichever way you turn to is ‘Instagram-worthy’ and will make you appreciate the quintessential English charm found nowhere else but in this very part of Britain. Visiting the Cotswolds is truly a unique experience. Its proximity to London and the abundance of historic villages to explore make it an ideal place to getaway from the hustle and bustle of city life. Traveling to Burford is quite easy — you either drive for an hour or so depending on the traffic, or take the bus from central London to Oxford for 50-60 minutes then take another bus to Burford for about 15-20 min. Alternatively you can take the train to Oxford and hire a cab or take the bus.

Note: This is first in a series of historic towns and villages we visited in the Cotswold this summer. Here’s Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown. Also, another beautiful and interesting place to visit in the Cotswolds is the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, and I did a review last summer of Blenheim Palace.

A JOURNEY TO BRITAIN’S NORTHERNMOST ISLE (3RD OF 3 PARTS)

Our visit to Shetland was precipitated by a friend’s invite for Jared and I to explore the islands. He told us that we will see the northernmost tea shop, northernmost police station, northernmost bus stop, northernmost hotel — practically everything northerly, and boy, was he right! We’ve seen everything northerly in the British isles when we visited the tiny island of Unst. To get to the island, we took the ferry for about half an hour (the car was loaded on a ferry) to an island called Yell and then on to another ferry for 45 minutes to Unst. What completed our trip was the visit to these islands.

I’ll let the photos do the talking.

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Muness Castle, Britain’s northernmost castle, a remarkable house of the late 1500s built for Laurence Bruce of Cultmalindie.
Most northerly Tea Room.
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Most northerly Tea Room.

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Most northerly food shop and gasoline station (photo taken from inside the food shop).

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I couldn’t resist posing for a photograph in front of the most northerly bus stop, and the most colourful I’ve seen — it  has flowers, books, table and chair and candies for anyone to enjoy while waiting for the bus. 

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Shetland is absolutely beautiful. Its vast expanse of striking wild beauty will awe any first time visitor  — its craggy terrain; the towering sea cliffs; the empty hidden beaches, the turquoise seawater; the haunting nature; the boundless blue skies; the tiny wild flowers in the meadows — the landscape is indeed quite dramatic. The tranquillity and sense of vastness and openness is truly a world away from the hustle and bustle of London life.

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Image: Promote Shetland/Shetland.org

Having lived in a small town (I was born and grew up in a little town in southern Philippines just a few minutes walk to the Pacific Ocean), I am relishing the thought of going back to the countryside. Visiting Shetland, especially the islands of Yell and Unst, reminded me of my hometown — it has none of the big city drawbacks. These cluster of islands may not be easy to get to (there is no direct flight there from London), but I love the bucolic scene and immensely enjoyed the visit. Also, it is a blessing to have a little bolthole in Shetland — thanks to our friend Kevin who has given us an open invitation to come anytime we want to get away. Shetland is an authentic rural escape where time seems to stand still and I can’t wait to visit again!

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Here’s the previous posts:

In Part 1 I focused on the mainland especially Lerwick, the capital town as well as the nearby villages.

In Part 2 it was about meeting local people and some historic sites on the island like Scalloway Castle, Clickimin Broch, etc.