A Surprise (actually, two)

May 23, 2008


I had been told to keep Wednesday open for some pre-scheduled events. As usual, I was a little hesitant whenever I have no control and someone has something planned. I just don’t like that feeling. Luckily, I usually like what’s decided for me better than what I would’ve done. And that’s how it turned out.

We left early and got on the M25. For the 73rd time, I asked where we were going. For the first time I got an answer. “South,” Sue said. Brilliant. Big help. Saving it to the last minute!

I was excited.

Leeds Castle

After a 40 minute drive, we took an exit with signs for Leeds Castle, and finally Neil and Sue announced our destination. I was ecstatic. Leeds ranked highest on my list of castles. It’s not the oldest or the biggest, but ever since my grandmother showed me a picture, I’ve been captivated.

We chose to skip the hot air balloon available for arial views (I could never do that), and meandered through the grounds up to the castle. The gardens are kept meticulously, and birds and flowers are everywhere. We stopped at the barns behind the castle first to have tea, and were greeted with a delightful view of the castle. One of the keys to being a tourist is not being a tourist. Every time I get in a rush to see all the touristy places, it ruins the joy of the process. Vacation and travel is about taking a break and seeing new places, but just seeing them is not enough if you don’t have time to reflect. I was pleased to travel in England with natives who wanted to stop and have tea or check email. It gave Libby and I a chance to absorb our surroundings. In fact, I’m almost worried about visiting touristy sites, because you don’t get a real sense of the place you’re in. The little towns and villages, in almost every case, are better than the big cities.

After tea, we walked around the gardens behind the castle, which include an aviary and a maze. The aviary is extensive, featuring toucans, parrots, hawks, owls and several species of endangered birds. We didn’t have time to get lost in the maze. Instead, we made our way back to the bridge across to the castle. Leeds is built on two small islands on a lake, and was added to extensively over the centuries to produce what exists now. Only a short bridge of about 50 feet is required to pass from the bank to the keep entrance.

The unguided walking tour takes you around the back of the castle so you can see some of the outside as well. Inside the castle are beautiful living quarters, some restored, along with banquet and conference facilities. The very middle of the keep has a small courtyard with a fountain that exudes Roman influence. Once we made our way back out, we stopped by the car to grab a picnic lunch, and shared our lunch with quite a few peacocks and peahens. We finished up, and hopped back in the car. We weren’t done yet.

The Channel Tunnel

We continued south, and as we approached the coastline and the choices became fewer, I started to wonder about the Chunnel. Finally, we grabbed an exit and Neil and Sue once again announced our destination: we were going to head over to France for dinner! You know, no big deal. Just a lazy little jaunt over to the continent through one of the wonders of the modern world to grab a bite. Libby and I gave each other one of our many “you’ve got to be kidding me” looks of the day as we parked at the station.

The process for the Channel Tunnel is extremely well thought out. We each bought a magazine at the store, went back to the car, and made our way up to customs. On each side of the tunnel is customs for both England and France. You take care of both countries before getting on the train, so you just start driving when you arrive. The trains themselves are pretty intelligent too. Cars are driven directly onto the trains (on two levels) through side doors. About 30 minutes pass while you lounge in the car with your magazine or book. The entire trip is extremely smooth - there’s no feeling of speed at all. Once you’ve arrived, you just start the car up and make sure you drive on the proper side of the road.


The scenery immediately changed in France, but I’m still not sure how or why. The air seemed cleaner, the architecture more country and quaint. Bypassing Calais, we made our way down through farmlands to Wissant, a small vacation town with a beautiful, wide strand of beach. We stopped at the cafe on the edge of the beach for beer and wine. After absorbing the scene through a glass of red wine, Libby and I went to take a walk along the beach. You know, the beach in France. On the continent. Because we could.

The water was cold, but neither of us really cared. Kitesurfers were skipping across the waves off the coast as children and parents were playing in the sand. Tide seemed to be out, and little saltwater streams made their way back down to the surf every few hundred feet. The farmlands reached right up to the bluffs above the beach, almost tipping over and into the water. The entire spectacle forced me to consider what the American soldiers thought of the beach they climbed sixty years ago further down the coast. How could so many wars develop over ideology here, in the midst of a continent whose geographic riches induce such culture?

We lingered as long as we could at the beach, before finding a restaurant for dinner and making our way back to the Chunnel terminal. Like the night before, the ride back to Billericay was mostly reflective.

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