Every wanderlust women, no matter how young, no matter how old, has had, at one time or another, envisioned herself as a princess. Castles and Camelot, Tristan and Iseult, knights and ladies and palaces fit for kings – not the stuff of fairy-tales and medieval knights but the stuff of 21st century England. I don’t think I have traveled through one country where there are more castles and palaces standing intact than in the United Kingdom, specifically England.
Of course, everyone thinks of Buckingham Palace in London because a Queen is still holding court there; yet, believe it or not, despite at least 20 trips across the pond and briefly living there as a student, I have never been to “the Palace.” I guess that’s like a New Yorker having never been to the Statute of Liberty. Actually, my reason for avoiding Queen Elizabeth‘s main digs is because the lines are always too long and this solo traveler does not do lines. Besides, there is a whole country full of much better, more easily accessible castles and palaces.
1. Windsor Castle is but a hop, skip and a jump from London. It’s a direct 30 minute train ride from Waterloo station and you arrive at the Queen’s house in the ‘burbs. Windsor Castle is massive, much too spacious to tour during one visit and not all of it is open to the public because it is still a royal home, having been so for more than one-thousand years. The really charming part about this castle is its place on the hill, above the The Long Walk in the park, and overseeing the village of Windsor itself. If you’re lucky and time the train from London just right, you can even catch the parade for the changing of the guard which occurs daily during the high season. (Photo Tip: during the late spring and summer months, the Queens Guard wears striking, photo-ready red uniforms, while in the autumn and winter months they change to drab gray!)
Windsor was the site of a major fire in 1992. The Queen literally watched as the Castle burned. The rebuilding occurred over a period of time and remnants of the charred remains and a photo history of the restoration process take up a portion of the ante-room display prior to the start of Castle tour.
Plan a whole day in Windsor; it’s worth walking around this picturesque town and there are many of the same shops that you will find on the High Street of London but without the crowds. You can also head down the hill and over a footbridge and find yourself in Eton, home to Eton College, which boasts 18 former British prime ministers among its alumni. Boat rides take you along a short stretch of the Thames but there isn’t much else there except the few waterfront restaurants you will find just over the bridge for lunch.
2. Hampton Court Palace is another spacious palace only a half-hour train ride from London’s Waterloo station. It’s the former home of the infamous Henry VIII, which he took from Cardinal Wolsey, and it is said to be haunted. Tour guides dress in period costumes and the tour is broken up into several options because it is time consuming to see the whole palace in one day. No matter what, do not miss a chance to try your skill at navigating the Maze. It is not as easy as you might think.
One hedgerow looks just like any other and to be perfectly frank, this solo traveler was forced to ask a 10-year-old schoolgirl to help her escape the maze.
By the way, if you are looking for a unique place to spend the night and ghostly adventures don’t frighten you, you might consider spending the night at Hampton Court. The British Landmark Trust operates historic sites and cottages and there are two apartments (Fish Court) within Hampton Court Palace which are available to let. I still have to do that but will admit to being chicken as a solo traveler as I don’t really want to bump into the ghost of Catherine Howard, Henry’s fifth wife, who is said to walk the Haunted Gallery at night, while the ghost of Jane Seymour, his third wife, is said to pace the courtyard.
3. Leeds Castle is true fairytale material and a bit of a schlep to get to from London. The train from Victoria station to Maidstone, Kent, takes just over an hour if you get the direct train and then you must take a taxi or shuttle from the Leeds station up to the Castle itself but the journey is well worth it. The Castle was originally built in 1119 as the home of King Edward I and served as home to Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. In the 1920s Lady Olive Baillie fell under the magic spell of Leeds and used her inheritance to turn it into the social hub of the day.
Lady Baillie had a great love of birds and stocked the well-appointed outdoor aviaries with exotic birds from all over the world. I actually saw a bird there in my two favorite colors, jade green and purple, along with white peacocks which were amazing.
This a castle sits on two islands in the middle of a lake, which adds to the magic, and the tour is quite enjoyable. The grounds are magnificent and worthy of a picnic whether you are traveling solo or meet your knight in shining armor along the way. Failing that, stop in the Castle’s Fairfax Restaurant – one of the best meals I’ve ever had outside of London. Maybe that’s why Leeds is the site of weddings, corporate affairs and other gatherings.
TOURIST TIP: Don’t confuse Leeds Castle with Leeds, England, which is quite far in West Yorkshire
4. Hever Castle is about 30 miles from London in West Kent. This is another fairytale castle with a double moat and it is the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife. (It seems Henry had as many homes as he had wives!) Anne’s prayer books, actually signed by the future Queen, are on display. Trains leave from London’s Victoria Station to Edenbridge and then you must take a taxi to the Castle grounds.
Hever and its grounds are beautiful and include both topiary and water mazes, as well as Italianate and Rose gardens, where you can easily imagine the young Anne playing hide and seek with her sister.
The 13th century home dates from the height of the Tudor reign and located just outside the castle is a Tudor Village, restored by and available for corporate conferences, weddings and the like, but unfortunately off-limits to tourists. But they have turned the Astor Wing of the Castle into accommodations for private guests and may be booked in advance for overnight castle stays.
I’ve only just scratched the surface of all of the castles, palaces and ruins that the United Kingdom has to offer. More to come soon………..unless my white knight takes me away!!!!!!