Sunday, May 1, 2005

Extraordinary Places…Close to London

After living in the United States for over 20 years and following numerous requests from friends asking, “…I’ve done all the usual tourist spots in England and now I’m looking for something different…” I decided to write Extraordinary Places…Close to London.

The book includes 50 destinations chosen for their historical interest and natural beauty. Each chapter includes the usual travel information about where to stay, eat and how to get there, but what you’ll find different about this book is I introduce the traveler to the history of the village by telling a unique story about its past. These stories include tales of kings and queens, witches and ghosts and bring the village alive to all, whether you’re an armchair traveler or plan to actually visit.

Following is a summary of the chapter about Leeds Castle.

Leeds Castle is reputed to be the loveliest castle in the world. Surrounded by lakes and streams, it sits majestically in spectacular grounds.

The first castle on this spot was built by a Saxon lord called Ledian (Leed) during the reign of Ethelbert, King of Kent, in 857. The strategic location of the castle was not lost on the Norman conquerors who began building a stone structure in 1119. In 1287, the castle was given to King Edward 1st and Queen Eleanor of Castile.

King Henry VIII, perhaps England’s most famous king, loved the castle and spent time beautifying the grounds and building new additions such as the Maiden’s Tower. No doubt most if not all his six wives spent time at Leeds Castle but it is assumed that at least Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn enjoyed its comforts.

The six wives of Henry made a sorrowful chapter in the history of England. He was known to be a hard and ruthless man who treated people harshly, especially some of his wives. His first marriage to Catherine of Aragon lasted over 20 years and although she produced several children, most died prematurely or were stillborn. Only one child, Mary, survived. It appears from records that although Henry had been a relatively good husband, he had several mistresses during his marriage to Catherine. He became frustrated with the lack of a male heir to the throne of England and argued with the Pope for an annulment of the marriage. The rift between Rome and the king turned into the Reformation and the establishment of the Church of England. Henry turned his attention to a young woman called Anne Boleyn, who was lady in waiting to the queen.

Anne Boleyn was thrilled the king favored her above the other ladies in waiting. Her sister Mary had been the king’s mistress for some time and it was said that she had given him an illegitimate son. Now it was Anne who caught the king’s eye. She was very different from Catherine of Aragon and had a black hair, swarthy skin and eyes so dark people said she used them as a weapon.

Anne took full advantage of her new position and flaunted her family and friends at court, many of whom were given special privileges by the king. In an attempt to discredit Anne, some members at court said she had a sixth finger on her left hand, several ugly moles on her body and even a goiter in her neck. However, none of this appears to have bothered Anne as she dressed in an exquisite gown made of gold fabric and trimmed in fur as she traveled up the Thames to the waiting king. The procession began at Greenwich with hundreds of barges that were decorated with flowers and had banners streaming from the masts. On September 7, 1533 Anne gave birth to Elizabeth who would become a powerful and long-lived queen.

Place to stay: Ramada Hotel & Resort Maidstone, Hollingbourne, Kent, (0.9 miles)

Place to eat: The Fairfax Hall at the castle houses a self-serve restaurant and the adjacent Terrace Room with table service provides lunches and afternoon tea.

How to get there: Travel southeast out of London on the M20 to Maidstone and follow the brown and white tourist signs to the castle.

Read the whole chapter >>

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