July 31, 2014

In the Footsteps of a Queen

Explore the ‘Golden Age’ of Elizabeth I on a trip
through southern England

By Jennifer Davoren

Vacations Magazine: In the Footsteps of a Queen
I practically tiptoe my way through the cavernous halls of Westminster Abbey, taking care not to tread on 10 centuries of English heroes entombed in the church floor. I feel a bit foolish as I skirt memorials to Chaucer, Darwin and Dickens, but I'm in good company. As I gaze across the abbey's nave, I spy a few tourists who, like me, keep a close eye on the stonework beneath their feet. More than 3,000 people are buried throughout London's "living church," and, though it's often unavoidable, there are a few of us who fear trampling a celebrity as we explore the stunning site.

My slow, silly shuffle eventually brings me to the eastern side of the abbey, where, in a sunlit chamber, I find the tombs of two 16th-century royals: Mary I, Queen of England from 1553 to 1558, and her half-sister successor, Elizabeth I. The latter's memorial is a white marble masterpiece dotted by gilded Tudor roses and graceful fleur-de-lis. Her effigy wears a pearl-edged crown. It seems a fitting tribute to the woman often called England's greatest monarch, whose 45-year reign solidified the nation's status as an artistic, intellectual and military superpower.

The Elizabethan era stretched from the queen's ascension to the throne in 1558 to her death in 1603 -- both her coronation and her funeral were marked at Westminster Abbey -- and gave rise to the likes of Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh and William Shakespeare. Elizabeth I is credited with the defeat of a Spanish invasion, the growth of Protestantism and the eradication of a crippling national debt left by her predecessors. She was an imposing figure in life and, it would seem, remains one some 400 years after her death: The noise that plagues the abbey during high-traffic hours seems to still beside her tomb as visitors pass in quiet reverence.

I, too, seem to find myself in awe. The Oct. 12, 2007 release of "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" -- a follow-up to 1998's "Elizabeth" and starring Cate Blanchett, Clive Owen and Geoffrey Rush -- has me on the hunt for historic hot spots during a trip through southern England. My itinerary offers attractions both modern and medieval, from tony London eateries to sprawling country estates, as I attempt to follow in some very formidable footsteps. With the help of my gracious hosts and a cadre of experienced tour guides, I hope to capture a sense of Elizabethan England -- and I'll keep my fingers crossed that, like the queen, I'm in for plenty of royal treatment.

Blue Badge, Blue Blood

My first day in London begins in the shadows of two queens separated by four centuries.

I awake on a balmy morning in June to see Elizabeth I gazing resolutely from a portrait above my canopied bed. I'm staying in one of eight "royal rooms" at the historic Rubens Hotel, and each reflects the legacy of a different English monarch. Mine, for instance, includes paintings of 16th-century London, a few delicate antiques and, woven into the bedspread and draperies, the queen's regal initials, "ER." My neighbors' luxuriously appointed rooms offer similar tributes to Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, and her infamous cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots.

The Rubens lies on Buckingham Palace Road, just a few yards from the official residence of England's current queen, Elizabeth II. Gazing out my second-story window, I spot the royal standard -- flown only when the queen is in residence -- waving from the palace flagpole. I set out from the Rubens that morning in the hope that I might cross paths with a member of the royal family; if not, I have a walk along the historic streets of London to comfort me.

I also have Eileen Cox, a five-year veteran of the renowned Blue Badge Guides. Blue Badgers are the best in their field, required to take an 18-month training course before leading any tours of their own. A 25-year resident of London who studies local history and keeps a strict timetable, Cox is the perfect antidote for our group of sluggish, jet-lagged travelers.

Cox's walk takes us through the center of town to explore both sides of the River Thames. We hike through the Borough Market, a site for farm-fresh foods since the 12th century; past the College of Arms, where English families can trace their lineage; and into the gardens of Temple Church, where Shakespeare set a scene in "Henry VI" depicting the start of the War of the Roses.

We catch sight of the fourth incarnation of St. Paul's Cathedral, where Elizabeth celebrated the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. We encounter Bankside, Shakespeare's old stomping grounds along the river, where pubs, playhouses and "painted women" once made up London's entertainment district.

On the north side of the Thames, we bid goodbye to Eileen and enter the Tower of London, an ominous presence against the cloudy afternoon sky. Built in the 11th century to protect the city from invaders, it later served as England's most feared prison. The yellowing stone held bitter memories for Elizabeth I. A victim of family feuds and religious unrest, she was briefly imprisoned here by her sister, Mary, and charged with treason. "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" sets a key scene at the Tower -- Elizabeth once jailed her favorite courtier, Walter Raleigh, for marrying without her permission. Today, the fortress caters to a happier clientele of tourists who queue up to see the crown jewels, displayed at a central gatehouse.

Another treasure along the Thames, the Globe Theatre, isn't a true Tudor antique -- the original, built in 1599 by Shakespeare's theater company, burned to the ground just 14 years later. Still, the faithful replica completed in 1997 offers an Elizabethan atmosphere with its careful re-creation, from the theater-in-the-round seating to the thatched, open-air roof. I feel a bit lost in time myself when, after a quick disclaimer from a bell-ringing usher -- "No ye olde cell phones, no ye olde flash photography" -- I settle in for a performance of Shakespeare's controversial character study, "The Merchant of Venice."

Royal Tea and Recipes

I can't take tea with the queen during my stay in London, but my helpful guide for the day suggests the next best thing. A leisurely stroll through the park leads us to The Orangery, an airy cafe on the grounds of Kensington Palace. We take our seats near a wide bank of open windows to enjoy a soft breeze and unparalleled views of the surrounding gardens, awash in a sea of summer colors.

For 44.95 pounds (roughly $90 in U.S. currency), guests of The Orangery are treated to champagne, sandwiches, a selection of fresh pastries and a pot of Tregothnan Estate tea, the first tea grown in England. The Tregothnan is a limited-edition, single-estate tea, with a light, fruity flavor. While The Orangery offers a wide variety of afternoon tea blends, quaffing the Tregothnan is a fleeting opportunity. Though the tea plantation in Cornwall has seen optimal conditions for leaf growth so far, temperature fluctuations could end production in the next few years.

While in London, I can't help but wonder if eating like a king can bring me any closer to royalty. My traveling companions and I test the theory by dining at two of the city's finest hotels: The Goring, a five-star oasis near Buckingham Palace, and The Ritz London, a name that needs no introduction.

At the Goring, Swarovski chandeliers crown the restaurant known simply as The Dining Room. Dishes showcase England's regional fare: Devonshire lamb, Norfolk duck, Dover sole and Cornish sea bass, for example. While the food was heavenly, my companions and I were even more impressed by the warm and gracious atmosphere of the restaurant.

The richly decorated restaurant of the Ritz is a formal venue made for fine food, and the chef didn't disappoint. Menus are revamped seasonally, and among the dishes featured this summer were rosemary-braised turbot and prawns with herb gnocchi, and for dessert, raspberry souffle and almond panna cotta with poached peaches. Since returning from England, I'm often asked to name my favorite between these two restaurants, but I don't dare choose -- both are beyond compare.

I get a true taste of Tudor England at Hampton Court Palace, a regal estate 15 miles southwest of London. One of 60 homes passed to Elizabeth by her formidable father, Hampton Court survives today as a unique snapshot of Renaissance life.

My visit begins with a slice of cinnamon-infused coffee cake in the manor's privy kitchen, commissioned by Elizabeth in the mid-16th century. Marc Meltonville, one of Hampton Court's resident historians, tells our group of visitors that this kitchen was used exclusively for the queen and her most intimate advisers, where meals such as mutton stew, Elizabeth's favorite breakfast dish, were cooked by a bevy of private chefs. Today, visitors use the area as a small dining room after grabbing a snack at the neighboring coffee shop. It's not how Elizabeth would have eaten, but it brings us a step closer to her lifestyle.

Marc then leads us to where most of the cooking was done at Hampton Court: the restored Tudor kitchens, a lengthy suite of rooms on the north side of the palace. More than 200 people worked here during a typical visit by Elizabeth, and a shocking amount of money was spent to feed her court. While the average English family earned 10 pounds a year during this time, Elizabeth's retinue ran through upward of 600 pounds per month on food and entertainment alone, Meltonville tells us.

Today, 12 dedicated historians work to re-create a bit of palace life, pouring through crumbling cookbooks and ancient court diaries to find recipes that might have been enjoyed by the queen herself. After weeks of preparation, the staff gets together -- often wearing the rounded doublets and billowing trousers typical of the age -- to cook as the Tudor chefs did. About once a month, lucky Hampton Court visitors find the group preparing meals, and, portions permitting, they sometimes snag a sample or two. Cooking events are scheduled for Oct. 6-7, Nov. 3-4 and Dec. 1-2 and 27, 2007.

Humble Country Manors

My visit to Hampton Court Palace has me on the lookout for other charming escapes in the verdant English countryside. I'm quickly rewarded with a day of exploration at Leeds Castle, a 12th-century fortress in Kent.

Though the castle passed out of the royal family's hands before Elizabeth I could inherit it, her father, Henry VIII, spent a great deal of time here during his reign. Today, Leeds sports an extensive restoration completed by its most recent owners, a succession of private citizens. The most charitable of them, Olive, Lady Baillie, took a personal interest in the refurbishment upon purchasing the castle in the late 1920s. Her antiques, lush fabrics, portraits and mementos reflecting her lifelong love of dogs enhance the stark stone architecture. A walk through Leeds is a true trip through time, from its Norman foundations to the silken draperies of Lady Baillie's drawing room.

After the tour, I adjourn to the small restaurant overlooking the estate for a glass of Leeds' own white wine. Like the castle itself, the vintage proves refreshing.

About an hour north of London, I arrive at a second manor worthy of a day trip: Hatfield House in central Hertfordshire. Legend has it that Elizabeth was here, reading her Bible under a sprawling oak tree, when she learned of Mary I's death and her own ascension to the throne. The young queen, just 25 years old at the time, hurriedly held her first council of state here before leaving for her coronation ceremony a few weeks later. She never returned to Hatfield.

Sadly, only a quarter of the old palace still stands; the present Hatfield House was built nine years after Elizabeth's death. Both structures and their dazzling gardens were used by the crew of "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" to stand in for various Tudor landmarks. Geoffrey Rush, the actor behind Sir Francis Walsingham, filmed an emotional scene in the newer manor's opulent, two-story Marble Hall, while Samantha Morton, cast as the doomed Mary, Queen of Scots, was filmed as she prowled the lush grounds.

Hatfield House boasts a few Elizabethan artifacts of note, including the famed "Rainbow" and "Ermine" portraits of the queen. Both depict Elizabeth in her prime -- though, truth be told, both were painted just a few years before her death. She appears confident, regal and in possession of ageless beauty, a requirement of all royal portraits. In a neighboring room, visitors can view copies of Elizabeth's early correspondence, but, due to the age of the paper, the originals must be kept out of harm's way.

Bright Lights, Little Cities

My tour of Elizabethan England concludes in two quiet country towns with big claims to fame.

Visitors to Winchester, 15 miles from the southern coast of England, are treated to a true pedestrian city -- winding walking trails connect most points of interest, including the popular shopping district and an open-air market. With a few companions, I head out from the comfortable Winchester Hotel one breezy summer evening to hike along High Street, picking up a few souvenirs and chatting with friendly locals, when we stumble upon a piece of old Winchester: the imposing Westgate.

Winchester, once the English capital, was protected by five stone gateways stationed around the city to ward against invaders. Only two gates stand today, and the Westgate is the better preserved. I climb an ancient stone staircase to the top of the gate, built between the 12th and 14th centuries, for sweeping views of the village and the hilly farmland along the horizon. Elizabeth I might have enjoyed the same view, the Westgate's historian says -- the queen visited Winchester three times during her reign. She likely stayed at the Westgate's neighbor, Winchester Castle, during her travels. Unfortunately, most of the manor was destroyed some 40 years after Elizabeth's death, but its Great Hall still stands.

A second slice of Winchester history towers over the south side of the village. A short walk leads to Winchester Cathedral, built in the 11th century as the region's religious center. Elizabeth's sister, Mary, married Prince Philip of Spain here, as her betrothal to the Catholic prince caused too much of an uproar in London. Winchester Cathedral played host to two recent film crews: those of "The Da Vinci Code" and "Elizabeth: The Golden Age." Two key locations in the cathedral, the private "lady chapel" and the lengthy nave, were used in "The Golden Age" in place of London's St. Paul's Cathedral, and Cate Blanchett, as Elizabeth, filmed two scenes here.

Another stunning 11th-century cathedral awaits in Ely, two hours north of London. Arriving just as Sunday services draw to a close, I have a chance to hear the famed Ely Cathedral choir offer the sung Eucharist.

"The Golden Age" filmmakers loved the gilded hue of the cathedral's stonework and used it to represent many of the queen's favorite haunts. The cathedral's nave, one of the longest in England, provided the perfect setting for a tense scene in which Elizabeth challenges a haughty Spanish ambassador. A trailer for the movie shows both parties charging along the stone walkway to confront each other under the cathedral's stunning stained-glass windows.

The lady chapel was used for a scene between Elizabeth and the charming explorer, Walter Raleigh (played by Clive Owen), as he presents the queen with exotic animals collected during his travels. A guide laughs at the memory of the creatures -- including zebras, parrots and snakes -- that were paraded through the chapel as the film crew prepared for Raleigh's entrance.

Before the day is over, I find myself drawn back to Ely Cathedral for an hour or so of private exploration. I pass under the west tower, built between the 12th and 14th centuries; examine the tomb of a 17th-century bishop; and photograph a striking contemporary sculpture, "The Way of Life," added to the cathedral's collection in 2001. I again find myself becoming an avid student of history, absorbing dates and events and surveying their impact on the present day. But that was the aim of my jaunt through southern England -- to lose myself in time and in the rich heritage of the land.

Tours of England: Escorted tours save time and money by packaging hotel accommodations, some meals, ground transportation and sightseeing at a cost that's up to 40 percent cheaper than piecing together the trip on your own. You'll find the Web's most complete and detailed list of tours to England -- often with money-saving promotions -- at TourVacationsToGo.com/England. Or, call travel discounter Vacations To Go at (800) 680-2858 to speak with an agent.

The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in September/October 2007. Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.


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