Canterbury & Leeds Castle, England
Welcome back to the UK! On arrival we went through a relatively strict passport control plus two vehicle inspections, but it was still easier to enter England this time around than it was back in February (when the holiday almost never started).
Unbelievably, England felt warm. Well, compared to Belgium anyway. Fourteen degrees and blue skies, perfect conditions for viewing the White Cliffs of Dover - they looked much better today than when we departed for the continent. On the ferry over we got into the spirit of things by ordering a traditional English fish and chips with mushy peas, and then cheated by drinking French Sauvignon Blanc. We didn’t expect high quality food on board but it was surprisingly tasty.
You would think having driven on the left-hand side of the road for over 10 years, it would be easy to pick up again after nine months of right-hand side driving. It wasn’t. It was extremely hard, like learning how to drive all over again. Roundabouts were especially difficult, but thankfully there were constant signs and painted arrows reminding us (and other mainlanders, no doubt) to stay left.
Our plan was to visit Dover Castle but it was shut, so we drove on to Canterbury. Canterbury was a small, medieval city, with English-style pubs and Tudor-style houses. The main reason for coming here was to see the famous Cathedral, but we found the majority of it closed today for a graduation. Instead we spent the afternoon wandering around aimlessly and sitting in cafes, happily reading English newspapers and English menus. Danny felt compelled to buy a pork pie as an homage to his birth country. I wanted nothing to do with the weird, cold pastries.
It didn't take us long to realise how grateful we are for English road signs, parking signs, supermarkets, book stores, and native English speakers. We are not grateful for miles, yards, feet and pounds (the weight, not the currency), which mean nothing to us.
The following morning, I walked back into Canterbury with the hope of visiting the Cathedral. This time all sections were open for visitors except the crypt, which was hosting a wedding (yes, a wedding in a crypt – creepy). I thought I would just take a quick walk around and leave, but that didn't happen. The place was massive. I wandered through the numerous exterior gardens for ages, admiring the building from many different angles, before I even reached the front door. Once I finally made it inside, I was gobsmacked by the sheer size of the Church. I know I have visited larger cathedrals, but this one felt more colossal somehow, like an entire city could fit inside its walls. I have no idea if I saw everything, as I spent most of my time in awe of the immense size of each room. Other than a few stained glass windows the building was actually fairly understated, but it was impressive all the same.
Our next destination was Leeds Castle in Maidstone. When we arrived we found there was some sort of Christmas fair going on, and every person and his or her dog was there. After finally finding somewhere to park, we spent the next few hours strolling around the beautiful grounds and exploring the interior of the Castle. There was an abundance of birds, both around the lakes and in an onsite aviary. Signs pointed out a few Australian species – I learned that black swans come from both Australia AND Tasmania (apparently these are different places). We unenthusiastically battled through the hedge maze, with the finishing point leading us into an underground grotto. The grotto was decorated with carved, mythical beasts bathed in colourful lights, and eerie sound effects blasted out of hidden speakers. It was a little gaudy, but I guess it was more for the kids than the adults. Danny’s favourite section of the Castle was the herb garden, with roughly 20 different varieties of thyme. I couldn't smell the difference.
The first caravan park we turned up to, very close to the Castle, was understandably full due to the Christmas fare, so we tried another one a few kilometres away. It was in the middle of nowhere, down an almost deserted, narrow lane, beside an equestrian centre. In the end there was just us and one other couple in a permanent caravan staying the night. The horses (and the remoteness) didn't worry us at all, but the hunters in the nearby forests, firing their guns for hours on end, really ruined the serenity.