While London is every traveller’s dream destination in England for its numerous attractions, history or shopping, set aside a couple of days to explore places beyond London. Whether it is the Leeds Castle in Kent or the two eminent universities of Oxford and Cambridge you will have lots to learn and discover and won’t be disappointed.
Castles are steeped in mystery and adventure, especially for our generation which grew up reading mystery books set in castles. Some haunted by the ghosts of those imprisoned in dungeons, others with princesses waiting to be rescued by knights in shining armours and still others robust with royalty during the Middle Ages but soon forgotten over time. Wanting to experience what a castle looks and feels like up close, we set off to see the Leeds Castle located in Kent.
The Leeds castle was a ‘Norman stronghold’ and home to six generations of queens and many centuries later became a private property and then served as a retreat for the rich and famous, to finally becoming one of Britain’s most visited historical building. Each of the rooms of the castle was full of opulence and grandeur be it the furniture, the paintings, artwork and tapestry. The castle was booked for a wedding. So an expensive vintage car waited outside the entrance, and the dining hall was all set for a sit-down meal.
Families spend the entire day here, exploring the numerous facilities available on the premises. You could spend hours at the maze getting lost and finding your way back, feeding the birds in the ponds or punting on the moat. Being a weekend, we saw many families with small kids enjoying themselves and unwinding on the lawns.
Since it was the fall season, the trees had changed from their otherwise green foliage to numerous shades of yellow, orange, ochre, brown and red. Suddenly I was reminded of the romantic Hindi movies directed by Karan Johar and Yash Chopra shot abroad, with the romantic leads showered with autumn leaves. No sooner did I bring this to the notice of my family that they insisted that I sit down and pose amongst the autumn leaves. While my husband was assigned the job of clicking my picture, my brother and kids created the necessary special effects by dropping autumn leaves over me without them being visible in the photo frame. Oh, the extent to which families can go to have some fun and let real life mimic reel life!
After visiting the castle, we stopped by for a late lunch at one of the ‘chippies’ to eat some fish and chips, which is invariably the UK’s favourite dish. The fresh fish is filleted and dipped in a batter and deep-fried till crunchy and served with crisp, fluffy-centred chips and assorted sauces. The portions were large, and although delicious, it was impossible to finish the dish.
England is known the world over for two renowned universities: Oxford and Cambridge. While I decided to stay back and spend time with my mom and brother’s family, my husband and kids decided to visit these two universities. So, for the next part of the travelogue, it is my better half who will take you through.
After making an online booking, the travel company picked the kids and me from a predetermined point in central London. Unlike the U.S. universities which have a sprawling ‘intact campus’ hosting various departments offering diverse courses, these two universities have numerous colleges spread over the entire city. So, while here one is exploring a whole city with several colleges and a predominant student population.
The bus journey from London to Cambridge was around two hours. Cambridge has a special place for me as I had done a residential summer program at Sidney Sussex College and was keen that the kids visit it too.
Cambridge is a small relaxed city with beautiful gardens along the River Cam. Punting on the river is a highlight, with students often making an extra buck by chauffeuring groups. On my earlier visit, I had tried my hand at punting but this time around it wasn’t possible since we had to visit both the universities in a single day. Established in 1209 Cambridge has seen a long list of illustrious alumni like Stephen Hawkins, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, noted Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan and so on.
The significant highlights of Cambridge are the renowned Cavendish Laboratory, King’s College Chapel, and the Cambridge University Library. Our tour guide gave us some time to explore on our own and then reassemble at a pre-agreed spot. We headed for the King’s College Chapel – an excellent example of gothic architecture which has impressive stain glass windows dating back to the 16th century. The Chapel is used as a symbol of Cambridge. Next, we saw Sidney Sussex College where I had attended the summer program. We even spotted the apple tree where it is believed that the theory of gravitation struck Newton. The original tree died a couple of centuries back, and this tree is supposed to be its descendant.
While exploring Cambridge, we came across houses where bricks had sealed the windows. The reason for this strange occurrence was that during the 18th and 19th-century window tax was a form of the property tax levied based on the number of windows a house had. To reduce or avoid the window tax, some landlords of houses chose to brick-up the window spaces.
Next, we saw the Corpus Clock, also known as the Grasshopper clock near Taylor Library. It is large a sculptural clock and has a 24-carat gold plated stainless steel disc. This clock was named one of Time’s Best Inventions of 2008.
After exploring Cambridge, we boarded the bus to then proceed to the rival University of Oxford, which is the world’s oldest English-speaking university. Packed lunch of sandwiches and juice was served en route. Of the two universities, Oxford is more vibrant with more stately buildings and has a lot more to offer. This university too has a who’s who list of illustrious alumni like former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Lewis Carrol who wrote Alice in Wonderland, former Prime Minister of U.K. Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and so on. Currently, Noble Laurette Malala is studying here. Oxford is also referred to as the ‘City of Dreaming Spires’ by Victorian poet Matthew Arnold because of the stunning architecture of its buildings.
For Harry Potter fans the dining hall of Crist Church College is a huge draw as it served as the inspiration for Hogwarts’ Great Hall in the films. The children being Harry Potter fans were elated at being able to identify several spots where portions of the Harry Potter series were shot. Similarly, this university has also been described as the ‘birthplace of Alice in Wonderland’ as many of its surroundings such as Christ Church College where Alice Liddell (the real Alice) lived, served as an inspiration to Lewis Carroll to write this entrancing tale.
While exploring the city we passed the Radcliffe Camera, a majestic building circularly built in neo-classical style with a dome on top. This impressive must-see structure houses a library. Among the other noteworthy buildings is the Sheldonian Theatre which hosts concerts and events and is also where the induction and graduation ceremonies of the students take place. We then saw the Bridge of Sighs which has a striking resemblance to its namesake in Venice that my wife and I had visited on an earlier trip to Italy. It also serves as a perfect backdrop for a photo opportunity for the tourists.
Our trip to the two universities had finally come to an end. For the children, it provided a sneak glimpse of what studying is like in universities abroad. An option they both were smitten by and whether they ever choose to study there only time will tell. As for the favourites among the two, there is no end to the discussion of which is better. It’s a debate that will never come to an end. What, however, can’t be disputed is that a visit to Oxford and Cambridge will leave you impressed by its architecture and history. Just the fact that these two universities have raised geniuses and stalwarts in fields of literature, politics and science is enough to make you want to visit them.
Nearest Airport: Heathrow and Gatwick are international airports in London. Several international flights from major cities in India can take you to London. From London, you can drive down or take a train or bus ride to Oxford or Cambridge or Kent.
Where to Stay: It’s best to stay in London and take a day trip to Oxford and Cambridge or Kent.
Travel Tip: For a guided tour of Oxford and Cambridge you can make bookings online. We used the Viator App for the Oxford and Cambridge tour which cost us approximately £ 90 per head. The Leeds Castle entry tickets were around £25.50 per head for any number of visits all year round.
This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons magazine, July 2018.