Monday, August 19, 2013

Forget Your French Lessons - It's Byoolee!

Stately homes often conjure up images of stuffy old buildings, busloads of old people, and bored kids being dragged from room to room by their parents. And there's no doubt that I've visited my share of those (although I was the odd child who enjoyed these old houses).

Something old
Fortunately, though, Lord Montagu, ancestral owner of Beaulieu in England's New Forest is a savvy man. While many stately mansions struggle to attract visitors, Lord Montagu has helped Beaulieu become the ideal family day out, thanks in large part to his hobby. The avid car buff's sizable collection is on display to the public at the site's National Motor Museum, and what a collection it is. More than 250 vehicles and bikes can be seen, ranging from 19th century penny farthings to top of the range Formula One racers. And with many of them maintained in working order, you never know what you might come across being driven around the property grounds. Other vehicles in the collection include Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, some wonderfully nostalgic British vehicles, and Sir Donald Campbell's magnificent Bluebird, the vehicle that set a new World Land Speed Record in 1964.

The record breaking Bluebird

Americans have the Oscar Meyer hot dog; we had the Outspan Orange!
Every car should have room for rockets!
Still not enough to satisfy your thirst for incredible autos? Get to Beaulieu before February 2014 to enjoy the Bond in Motion exhibition, celebrating 50 years of our favorite British spy. From Aston Martins that have suffered the worst of crashes to the motorbikes from Skyfall, you can relive some of your best Bond moments with this wonderful collection. 
Elsewhere in the grounds, The World of Top Gear takes you behind the scenes of Britain's best-loved car show with a display of their more...eclectic... creations. 

But remember, this is also a stately home so lets leave the cars and talk about the house itself. Palace House has been home to the Montagu family since the 16th century. Still a family residence, only a few rooms are open to the public, but they offer a fascinating look into the history of the Montagus. If you're lucky, you can also catch one of the daily musical performances by members of staff.  

Children's playroom
Once you're done browsing the portraits, the formal gardens and the remains of Beaulieu Abbey provide opportunities for peaceful strolls and country picnics. 

Finally, don't forget to wander down to the village of Beaulieu where tourists, locals, and New Forest ponies all mingle - I can't recommend the chocolatier enough. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Why You Should Skip Stonehenge

To some, what I am about to say will be sacrilege. I am going to tell you why you shouldn't bother visiting that ultimate image of old Britain: Stonehenge. Yes, I've been there and yes, I had a wonderful time, but would I recommend it?


Better here than in the flesh?
In a perfect world, this would be your trip to Stonehenge, and incidentally, this is how my visit went. Arrive in Amesbury the night before and find somewhere to stay. Enjoy a pleasant meal ... ok this did NOT happen for us. We ended up at a Little Chef in the pouring rain eating sausage and mashed potato flakes that floated in a pool of greasy gravy while the woman at the next table changed her baby's diaper on the dining table and then threw the dirty diaper on the floor next to us so she could finish her meal!

But back to your ideal trip... enjoy a pleasant meal and retire for the night. The next morning you awake, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Having stayed so close to the Stonehenge site, you are the first to get there, and enjoy a peaceful half hour wandering among the stones, taking in the peace of the Salisbury Plains, before departing as the first tourist coaches arrive for the day.

We were lucky.

Here is how your day is more likely to go:

You stay in London, or perhaps the New Forest the night before. You wake, have a relaxed breakfast, and head to Salisbury. Several miles away, you suddenly stop, bogged down in traffic. Rush hour, perhaps? Nope. Stonehenge traffic. Forget looking at your map for an alternative route. If you are visiting in peak season, the roads are all backed up for several miles as tourists slow down to gawp, take pictures, and, if they're lucky, eventually reach the entrance to the parking lot. Locals must hate their daily commute with a passion.

Once you reach the site, you will be faced with a parking fee. If you pay to go into the attraction, this fee will be discounted off your ticket price. But the purpose of the fee is clearly to make sure that even those who want to stop, snap a picture, and maybe buy a souvenir without going in, still pay their share. So you decide to go in. You will pay what is really quite an exorbitant fee - £8 for adults - to see some rocks. Now don't get me wrong - Stonehenge is beautiful and historically significant, but it's much more beautiful on the postcards. Once you've paid your money, you realize that you are surrounded by hundreds of other tourists, all trying to get their pictures taken. Oh, and remember those images of it standing on an isolated plain? There are major roads running either side of the site. Peaceful reflection has been replaced by commercialism and hordes of people.

Where to go instead?


Just a couple of miles down the road (but in the opposite direction of the Stonehenge-seeking traffic) is the far less well-known Woodhenge. Obviously the original wood has long since rotted away, to be replaced by concrete markers, and it is not as impressive visually as its stoney cousin. However, it is much more complete in layout, is virtually tourist free, offers wonderful views of the surrounding countryside, and is free.

Old Sarum
From there, head another couple of miles toward Salisbury for another English Heritage-owned site - Old Sarum. Entry is less than half the price of Stonehenge but I find the ruins of the fort much more interesting. The site once housed an Iron Age fort, which over the years, was rebuilt by Romans, Saxons, and Normans. In addition to viewing the remains of the castle which once stood here, you can also see the foundations of the area's original cathedral (while looking down at the more modern 12th century Salisbury Cathedral).

Foundations of the original cathedral
There are plenty of walking trails in and around the fort, offering stunning views on all sides.

Looking down across Salisbury and the Cathedral (home of the Magna Carta)

So ultimately, you could have a stressful time reaching an overcrowded and overpriced tourist attraction, or you could spend a few hours in a more relaxed, but just as interesting setting.

I know which one I'd choose.