Spending an Epic English Summer Road Tripping and Housesitting
London is a metropolis that sprawls around a One Square Mile area, showcasing European architecture, monuments and culture over the last Millennium. Renowned for its red double-decker buses, murky brown Thames river and mass of underground tube stations, this vibrant two thousand year old city is difficult to describe if you haven't experienced it for yourself.
We house-sat a spacious 5 bedroom, 5 bathroom house in Reigate, a leafy suburban village in Surrey about a 45 minute train ride from London. Twice a week a friendly cleaner called Kim came to work her magic, removing dust from the common areas, which was created by builders constructing a sun room and office (it reminded me of my last job, only less noisy). Our new animal friends were two cats Basil, a black and white kitty who eats anything he can get his paws on and his ginger brother Benson, who who largely ignored us until the last few days of our stay. Then there was Parker, the sweet natured Golden Retriever who resembled a cuddly lion. His favourite things are walking around the house with toy duck in his mouth and roaming the nearby English heath. He is very sweet, affectionate and actually grins to show he's happy.
I previously spent just over a year in London so visited most of its famous attractions about a decade ago. I recommend the Tower of London, a West End show and a central city walking tour as a must for tourists. Richie only visited London for a week in 2016 so was not as familiar with the city. The $30 NZD return travel cost from Surrey to London prohibited us from making the journey as much as we might have otherwise, but we ventured in several times together and alone. We worried about leaving Parker, especially after he feigned a sad expression upon our departure. The following day our dilemma was solved when the lovely couple who owned the hotel next door unexpectedly offered to have him over to visit. They missed having dogs of their own, and while we went sightseeing Parker had a great time eating treats, running around their huge garden and charming other guests.
We only had time for one museum so choose the Natural History Museum, which on hindsight was possibly a bad idea during the school holidays. As we manoeuvred our way around the crowds of children, Richie managed to meet a long lost relative and find out he is the missing link, while I avoided becoming lunch for a large hungry looking dinosaur.
For our next excursion we decided to visit two of London's iconic Saturday markets, Portobello Market in trendy Notting Hill and Borough Food Market near London Bridge. At Borough Market we caught up with our Kiwi friend Alexia and her Swedish partner Robin, who both recently made London their home. After a stroll around the area complete with some cheesy tourist photo's we found a waterside pub for some late afternoon beverages.
On other days Richie took a trip to the RAF Museum which he describes as "incredible" and I decided to take part in more practical activities like visiting a hairdresser (thanks to Groupon) and head to Oxford Street for some bargain hunting in its numerous clothing stores.
With our house-sit completed in just over 2 1/2 weeks we felt sad about leaving Parker, but he was engrossed in the bone he received from his returning family and appeared oblivious to our departure. We collected a rental car from nearby Gatwick Airport and drove two hours to Coventry. Well Richie drove and I tried to give directions while figuring out the difference between kms and miles and deciphering how long a yard is compared to a metre. We made it to our destination unscathed and decided to take a detour to Shakespeare's birthplace, the pretty town of Stratford Upon Avon.
Our Airbnb host Laura impressed us the following morning as she explained over breakfast how she and her husband Luke gave up their uninspiring office jobs to pursue full-time music careers. We then drove 15 minutes to Kenilworth, a quaint little town where some of my relatives on my mother's side once lived. My 3x great grandmother was born there, and after marrying immigrated to New Zealand, only to die in a tragic accident along with her husband when a tree fell on their house during a freak storm, killing them and leaving their 6 children orphaned.
We briefly walked around the town's old part before stopping at a church my ancestors once attended, with many historical archives on Ancestry.com recording their baptisms and marriages taking place there.
The town's most famous attraction is Kenilworth Castle, an ancient ruins described as a "splendid and gigantic structure" in author Sir Walter Scott's acclaimed 19th century historical fiction novel Kenilworth: A Romance. This once magnificent Castle was originally constructed in the early 12th century and added to over the centuries before being mostly destroyed by government forces in 1650. Nevertheless at first glance the remains are still breath-taking. As we walked around with audio sets that explained the castle's history we could picture the visit from Elizabeth I to see her friend/lover Robert Dudley (depending on what you believe) and the huge mere or land man made body of water that once surrounded the castle making it an almost impenetrable fortress.
A different family of my ancestors once called Trowbridge home. On the way to this Wiltshire town we stopped off at Avebury, which is basically like Stonehenge but less impressive and free. Also you can touch the stones, make a wish or ask the universe for good luck (or whatever Richie was doing below).
Trowbridge may not be the most exciting town, but it was interesting to see another church where some of my relatives had significant occasions, and visit apartments which were once the local workhouse for the area where several of my descendants ended up before being sponsored to immigrate to New Zealand.
We spent the night in a lovely room in a 17th century house in tiny picturesque Bromham, where two identical crafty white cats kept trying to sneak into our room. The following morning we made a quick detour to Bath to admire the famous royal Crescent Houses and city centre with its 18th-century Georgian architecture. Unfortunately we didn't have time for a dip in any of Bath's famous spas as our rental car was due in Surrey en route to London.
Our last few days were spent enjoying the hospitality of our good friends Alexia and Robin in their trendy apartment close to central London, and cruising around town in a convertible with the roof down thanks to Richard's Finish friend Antti. We visited many popular tourist sites, including Buckingham Palace, several West End bars and even briefly stopped in at London's Google Offices. On our final full day we enjoyed lunch in Brixton and sunset drinks in Richmond at a riverside pub.
Overall we had an amazing time in the UK. It was awesome to catch up with good friends, learn about family history and visit new and old sites. Hopefully it won't be another 8 years before we get to return.