Friday, May 29, 2009

Three men in a boat ... and a King

Ah yes, summer is a-coming. Today is the most beautiful day and we are anticipating 23 °C. We have an early checkout from the hotel this morning (9 am) somewhat dissatisfied with the level of room comfort and the lack of attention to the small details. The staff however have been pleasant.

Initially we planned to go and do Windsor Castle today, but first want to go and see if we can take a closer look at the most amazing building we saw on our way to the movies the other night. We noticed that there was a University of London sign on the gate, so we are assuming that we should at least be able to get into the grounds. The Royal Holloway and New Bedford College as seen from the road is jaw-droppingly gorgeous and interesting. We head back on the same road we took the other night and before long, we spy the edifice through the trees. Turns out that it is modelled on a French Chateau in the Loire Valley (more details in the link above). There is one small gateway and the road goes one way around the exterior of the building ensuring that every time you enter the grounds you get the full benefit of the vista!

From here it is a very short drive to Runnymede and the memorials to the signing of the Magna Carta (that was sealed by King John because he could not read or write!). So we head out into the peak hour traffic but only for a little while as we enter the National Trust area that is the Runnymede site. Our priority is food as we did not have breakfast at the hotel and the Magna Carta cafe is still serving a full English breakfast which was delicious. Gosh the sausages here are so different from the standard issue at home. Once we have filled bellies, we turn to look at the sites on offer. As there is quite a walk to reach the various memorials (and we are still hoping to do the Castle) I opt to wait for Michael to go have a look.

There are two memorials, well one is dedicated to the Magna Carta whilst the other is a dedication John F Kennedy. Albeit, the memorials are most impressive and quite solemn. The memorial to the signing of the first Magna Carta was erected by the American Bar Association in recognising the charter as the first document representing democracy and human rights. The memorial, designed by Edward Maufe, is of a domed classical stye rotunda with a singular pillar of English granite at its centre. On the pillar is enscribed the words: To commemorate Magna Carta, symbol of Freedom Under Law. Oh, and as for the charter being 'signed' on Runnymede Island is utter baloney - as it is not known where in Runnymede the Magna Carta was signed and sealed! As for Runnymede Island, it was man-made in the late 19th century, a church'folly' built and visitors were charged 1 penny to view the alleged revered place.

The Kennedy memorial was erected on one acre of land given to the American people in 1964 after Kennedy's assassination in 1963. In essence, when you enter this memorial you are literally walking on American soil! However, access to this memorial is by a steep set of stairs designed to represent the path taken in the Pilgrim's Progress - minus the multitude of demons and temptations. Upon reaching the summit one is met by a 7 tonne rectangular block of marble inscribed with a dedication and a quote from President Kennedy's inaugural speech which he gave in 1961. To the left of the memorial is a path which is referred to as a 'Jacob's Ladder', as the path is to represent walking towards the future. The path ends with two concrete benches located above and below the direction of the path. These benches have been dedicated as 'Seats of Reflection', as the visitor is provided with a panoramic view of Runnymede and beyond.

We leave the Runnymede site to drive up to the Commonwealth Air Forces Memorial set upon Cooper's Hill. This memorial is located on 5 acres of manicured lawns and gardens commemorating those 20,456 Air Force personnel who lost their lives during WWII and who have no known graves. Their names are inscribed upon the interior walls of the memorial and grouped in each respective year of the conflict and nationality. To mention the solemnity of this shrine is an understatement for it is a poignant statement in sadness and futility. The view provided from the roof of the shrine is stunning, for one can see as far out as London city.

Today was similar to the Bank Holiday last Monday - perfect weather! With just a slight breeze blowing and with ducks and geese a plenty we're set for a leisurely cruise along the Thames. Travelling at a 4 knot speed we bask in the fine weather whilst absorbing all of our surroundings. Our helmsman proudly points out a handsome steam driven vessel which he refers to as the flagship of the companies fleet. Built in 1894 the vessel changed hands and was finally bought by French Bros who had it restored right down to replacing the diesel engine with a steam reciprocating engine. He further advised that the vessel was available for hire a modest sum of £1,500 for the day!

As we sail we are provided with an informative spiel of the history surrounding the area. Our helmsman points out the ruins of St Mary's Priory and a nearby yew tree, referred to as the Ankerwycke Yew. The yew tree he extols, has been suggested by some historians as a more probable spot where the Magna Carter may have signed and sealed! As we pass this spot the banks are lined with a variety of Dutch barges which have been converted by their owners as residences. The owners of these barges tend to the gardens which line the river bank, which appear to be overseered by the occupants of the stately homes beyond the bank! As for stately homes, (it is as though our helmsman had read Maria's mind,) we are provided with an estimation as to the value of some of the homes along the bank. The estimations ranged from £380,000 to £1,000,000 which surprised us as we assumed the property values to be exceedingly more.

We pass by an inflatable dingy occupied by two men, two women, one child and a dog. This is reminiscent of Jerome K Jerome's classic story of 'Three Men In a Boat' together with the dog Montmorency...we have a laugh over this comparison. And along the bank we see English people taking picnics in the park as the children are on a week's mid-term break from school included that quintessential English family man complete with hankie knotted in four corners adorning his head. Well, as Noel Coward once penned - "mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun."

Our cruise does a turnaround just past the picnickers and docks at a mooring to take on passengers and allow others to disembark. We are on our way and no sooner that our cruise has come to an end.

We decide to drive to Avebury to visit the standing circle, however the best laid plans go awry with the volume of traffic and roadworks. Terrible delays on the motorway so we returned to have a very late lunch at the Bells of Ousley pub near the Runnymede site in Old Windsor.

Our lunch over we make our to West Drayton where our lodgings, the Oakwood Lodge is located. We finally arrive, after a interlude to put our car through a much needed car wash and a detour in locating the parking area.

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