Solace for the soul

The magnificent and lavish Blenheim Palace, which was built by Queen Anne, features fine art,...

The magnificent and lavish Blenheim Palace, which was built by Queen Anne, features fine art, ceramics, beautiful furniture, and luxurious, ornately-decorated rooms. -- Photos courtesy Visit Britain

KEN WALKER -- Special to Sun Media

, Last Updated: 2:28 PM ET

"What do you want to do in England?" my wife asked when we began to plan our trip.

"Just drive less travelled roads, enjoy the English countryside and visit a few pubs," was my response.

Fortunately, my wife had other plans as well. And the combination of my "pubs" and her more historical leanings resulted in a memorable vacation with some surprises.

To begin, I would never have considered the possibility of wandering the interior corridors of Buckingham Palace.

But my wife discovered that when the Queen is not in residence, the Palace is now open to the public. So she arranged for us to arrive in London in September in time for the last day it was open.

I've driven by the Palace many times, not unduly impressed by its massive, rather drab appearance.

But what a shock it was to walk the ornate, glittering rooms where Queen Elizabeth knights her subjects, entertains royalty, ambassadors and presidents. The grandeur rivals that of the ancient palaces of Catharine the Great of Russia.

Another "must" is a visit to Winston Churchill's underground bunker, the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms near the Houses of Parliament.

This is where Churchill and his staff, both military and civilian, directed the Battle of Britain during the bombing of London. It's an extensive working and sleeping area, reinforced with steel, in the basement of an old unobtrusive building.

Well preserved, it offers a view of the frantic activity that went on during a crucial time in Britain's history, as well as details of Churchill's amusing habits and lifestyle.

But the main purpose of our trip was to drive the central part of England known as The Cotswolds (high forest land).

It's the "Heartland of England" where the industrial revolution began with signs and symbols of England's past around every corner, from battlefields and stately homes to tiny country villages and stone cottages.

The rolling geography of the area is one of outstanding beauty and peacefulness. Its limestone villages are scarcely altered since they prospered during the medieval wool trade of the 15th century.

We first stopped at historic Oxford for a day or two, visited Windsor Castle and then headed off into the countryside, to Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill.

A magnificent structure, the Palace was built by Queen Anne as a thank you to the Duke of Marlborough after he defeated the French in 1704 at the Battle of Blenheim.

The scale alone of this Palace is awe-inspiring. It is lavishly decorated, adorned with priceless paintings, furniture made by the finest craftsmen, ballrooms and a library.

Ten years after his death, an elaborate memorial was built for the Duke. Sir Robert Walpole, then prime minister, was moved to ask at the unveiling if he had come to worship God or the Duke of Marlborough! The current 11th Duke of Marlborough continues to live in a wing of the palace.

We left Blenheim in search of Churchill's gravesite "just a mile away."

It wasn't easy to find. No road signs or markings guided our way, but we found the small village church and behind it a tiny "Marlborough" cemetery.

Here was Churchill's unremarkable gravestone, beside that of his father and mother, his wife Clementine and various Marlboroughs.

It seemed totally incongruous that the greatest Englishman of the last century should have such an inconspicuous grave.

The Cotswolds have so many precious towns and villages around corners and over hillsides that it is hard to pinpoint one.

My favourite was Stow-on-the-Wold, one hour from Oxford, and the highest point in the Cotswolds. It's where the final skirmishes of the Civil War took place in 1646.

Now its pretty narrow streets are a major centre for antiques, shops, tearooms, and the oldest pub in England.

Close by are Chipping Camden, Broadway, Burford and Bibury, a tiny village dating back to the 14th century which is said to be the most photographed village in England, and justly so.

After a soul-refreshing drive of several days through the peaceful northern Cotswolds, visiting pubs and antique shops, we headed southwest to the city of Bath.

It occupies a prime geographical setting on the Avon river surrounded by seven hills. Originally a steaming, swampy spot it was much revered by the locals for its warm springs.

But the Roman army invaded in 43 AD and drained the swamps in the space of 30 years, contained the warm mineral waters, and built a temple to denote Britain's first health spa.

Bath has also been famous for its shops since Georgian times. It now has more shops clustered in the city centre than a city ten times its size.

And, I might add, some mighty fine pubs.

We ended our trip, on the way back to London, by driving to one of my favourite spots, Winchester, a picturesque and historic city in the south of England.

En route we passed Stonehenge, the ancient monument of vertical stones, standing solitarily on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.

These huge stones weighing many tons have captured the imaginations of people for centuries. No one knows who built Stonehenge, or how.

Why were we headed to Winchester? I'd been there before.

It's a prosperous, ancient city with a huge medieval cathedral in its centre where Richard the Lionheart is buried.

More to the point, it has the quaintest and most atmospheric pub in England, The Wykeham Arms, tucked away in the oldest part of the city.

I stood at the bar next to three men who looked like they had been there for the last 100 years. They were debating, with some energy, how Nelson won the Battle of Trafalgar!

What better way to enjoy a beer and end a magnificent trip to England?


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