THE RUNAWAY TRAVEL ADVENTURE
How It Began. This blog is a cautionary tale how a seemingly innocuous round trip to New York City and back to Minneapolis turned into a multi-week odyssey: an across-the-Atlantic voyage on the Queen Mary 2 to Southampton, and then by train to several of the famous Great Houses in central England. But how could such embellishments occur? When planning a trip it is essential to be on the lookout for certain key words your partner may casually be saying, such as: “as long as we’re in (fill in the city or location), we might as well go on to (again fill in).” Fateful words!
How It Grew. The expanded itinerary began early this year when the wife and I were planning a major family celebration for early summer in New York City. This mission was readily accomplished. Then a while later I was informed, with those beguiling-“might as well” words, that immediately after the end of our festivities the Queen Mary 2 just happened to be sailing from New York-to England. (My partner is a dedicated travel writer, and such arcane information is always at the ready.) . We had often talked about taking such a trip, so why not now? Thus the plan was changed to include this voyage, and I assumed the added adventure would finish with an immediate flight home.
And Grew: But knowing how family matters transpire, I was not surprised that shortly I began hearing about the glories in historic England of four, centuries’ old, virtual palaces–Chatsworth, Hardwick Hall, Haddon Hall and Burghley House. (Think Masterpiece Theatre mansions in sumptuously maintained, pastoral settings.) I am a history buff, meaning this further suggestion became an instant fait accompli.
Accordingly, on a Sunday night in New York we repacked and the next morning took an easy cab ride from our midtown hotel to the ship’s Hudson River dock. Be immediately assured that this will not be a rapturous panegyric about the glories of the Queen Mary 2. Yes, it is magnificent and qualifies as a floating palace. But since you may not have had the opportunity to travel on this Cunard flagship; here are some personal, less pro forma observations.
About Formal Nights. (And this is a major concern of my contemporary male elders.) Most cruise ships have some formal nights. I don’t happen to take a tux on cruise travel: too much trouble. Besides, you can almost always get away with a blue blazer. But the Queen Mary 2 is the Cunard flagship and is quintessential, stiff-upper-lip, British style formal. The trip takes seven days and seven nights, and four of the seven nights are really formal. But not- to- worry. I quickly noted that a dark suit and somber tie will suffice.
For this occasion, however, I made a major exception. I had inherited my father’s 1936 vintage, made in Britain, Sulka-designed dinner jacket, with a shawl collar, navy blue silk embossed jacket, and a red silk lining. This was my ultimate “peacock” moment. For the ladies, I am advised that a dressy dress or slacks and a sparkly top will suffice. But if an opportunity to wear elegant attire is desired, this is your chance.
About Prices. We often cruise on Holland-America. We were pleasantly surprised to observe that in our cabin range, prices were comparable with the Queen Mary 2. Of course at the top decks, prices move up to conspicuous consumption levels including, if so desired, butler service.
About Passenger Numbers. At capacity the ship carries about 2,500 passengers and a crew of 1,500. The ship is so spacious however, that one never feels crowded.
About Service.. British service is based on 1,000 years of training. Think British TV’s memorable “Upstairs, Downstairs” series. Yes, both cuisine and overall ship service are superb.
About Always Being on Board. This was our first time without any port stops. So we assumed we should plan for book and Kindle reading. This wasn’t the case. There were so many excellent choices of activities that we scarcely had time for a late afternoon nap.
About Fellow Passegers. Being a Cunard ship, you run into a variety of British personal stories. Here is my favorite. An English lady and her husband on the ship were coming home after a year in America. .They had rented their home near London through a reputable agency. Before leaving on their cruise home they had asked their daughter to check up on their house and garden. A week later the daughter reported back that the garden looked all right. She had no door key to get inside, but was able to see through the windows and all the living room furniture appeared to be missing. The lady told us she was feeling concerned.
On To Central England.. We disembarked at Southampton and began our Great Houses tour by train. At an earlier age our reflexes were adequate to brave wrong- side-of road travel, but no longer. English train travel proved to be convenient; fellow-traveling Brits were gracious when we cried out for help. The various accents can be a challenge—as G. B. Shaw famously said of Britain and America: “Two countries divided by a common language”- but we persevered. Our first stop was Chatsworth, about 150 miles northwest of London and the residence of the 12th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire.
Chatsworth: Spectacular Baroque. For lovers of massive opulence, this is a “must” destination. Family members have been in continuous residence since it was completed in 1707. The 1st Duke of Devonshire was promoted from Earl to Duke in 1689 when he and several of his royal buddies succeeded in ridding the country of King James II, then offered the kingdom to William and Mary of Holland. The dukedom was his reward.
Jumping to the current day, the recently retired 11th Duchess of Devonshire, is still very much alive and active at age 91. Her maiden name was Mitford, first name Deborah, one of six sisters who were both famous and infamous. Several became well known authors, including Deborah, while one sister married Britain’s #1 British fascist in the 1930’s, Oswald Mosley, and another moved to Germany in the 1930’s and became a Hitler favorite.
Deborah, the non-political sister and married to Andrew Cavendish, the11th Duke of Devonshire, threw herself into renewing the house and estate, making it into a destination triumph. We stayed at the estate hotel, The Cavendish, which is also the family name. There, proofs of Deborah’s staff capabilities were readily available to hotel guests. The hotel’s décor, paintings and gardens were a joy to behold. The cuisine was a revelation and the afternoon tea of artfully prepared finger sandwiches, scones, pastries, clotted cream and jam allows one to overlook the inherently decadent nature of this repast.
To Hardwick Hall. Our next stop took us to a late 16th century Tudor mansion, Hardwick Hall, built and owned by a lady who achieved national renown despite her lowly origin. Elizabeth (Bess) Hardwick began life as the daughter of a poor farmer. She rose to become the second wealthiest British woman in the late 1500’s, second only to Queen Elizabeth herself. Certainly Bess was noted for her sagacity, but it helped that she became a four-time widow, all to men of significant wealth. She was a friend of the Queen who bestowed upon her the title of Countess of Shrewsbury.
Hardwick’s Great Hall is bedecked with large portraits of 16th century English notables, including Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary of Scotland. Our guide pointed out that for all these portraits, and for that matter for centuries of European portraiture, nobody is smiling. Why? Universal bad teeth!
To Haddon Hall. Another hotel, The Peacock (charming and blessed with climbing roses and a beautiful garden) and another stop to see the one of the oldest surviving medieval castle/mansions in England. The initial phase of the building was a chapel, built in the 1070’s, just a few years after the Normans, led by William of Normandy, conquered the Saxons in 1066..The chapel still exists and is used on special holiday occasions. The name of the original property owner is mentioned in the late 11th century Domesday Book, which is a listing of all the property owners at that time in England and authorized by the same King William.
This was a great opportunity to look at building designs encompassing almost a millennium. For example, in the medieval kitchen, circa 1300, we noted large drains used for animal slaughter (Evidently residue odors were not an issue.) Moving on to the 16th century, in the Tudor-designed Great Hall there were a number of Flemish tapestries; grandest of all was a tapestry gift from Henry VIII, a family friend! The architectural changes continue well into the 20th century.
Final Stop: Burghley House. This time we took a train about 50 miles south to the town of Stamford and to Burghley House, considered England’s greatest Elizabethan house. In keeping with vintage hotels, we stayed at the Bull & Swan, basically an 18th century pub. We loved the pub specialty, the remarkably flavorful “Pork Pie” dish.
Along with Chatsworth, Burghley could qualify as a palace. The house was built by the first Lord Burghley, William Cecil, who was Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I. (Possibly his title also accounts for Gilbert and Sullivan’s title of “Lord High Executioner” in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta Mikado.) Additionally, Cecil was Elizabeth’s Chief Minister and functioned as her forty-year top pooh-bah, which probably explains Burghley’s elegance. It continues to be the home of the Cecil family, now lived in by a direct descendant of William Cecil: Miranda Rock, her husband Orlando and four children. In fact, while touring the first floor billiard room, which faces the inner courtyard, we observed family members playing an intense game of badminton.
How to briefly summarize the Burghley House grandeur? We toured 18 state rooms, each replete with a surfeit of treasures, were informed about 191 additional rooms, counted 55 servant call buttons located next to the historic kitchen, and a nearby collection of thirty fire buckets. We were further informed that in the year 1900 Burghley House employed approximately 120 servants. Our guide additionally commented that in that same year one-seventh of all employees in England were in service. (Again think TV’s Masterpiece Theatre.)
Recommendations: After Burghley House we took a train to Heathrow Airport and then home.
We are four-square for a Queen Mary 2 voyage: a joyous adventure. And “as long as” you are in England, why not visit some of these spectacular Great Houses scattered throughout the country. As far as taking trains, it requires some planning. Driving is more convenient, but if the thought of tackling roundabouts terrifies you, you could also hire a car and driver.. A final encouraging thought is that travel distances are really quite short. It is a surprisingly compressed country.
Finally, finally, if this blog spurs a travel idea, you might check out the web site of my partner and in-house travel authority. It is: www.travelovereasy,com. ……Happy Traveling!