Bob had three 3-day weekends in a row this month. We didn't make it very far the first two, but really wanted to get away for the last one. Labor Day, the least meaningful American Holiday.
Bob suggested Dover, as we didn't see half the castle last time we were down there. I spent 2 or 3 days looking for a hotel online (it is hard to find a place where we all fit, and we can afford). Finally I found a place on Expedia.com that was a little more than I wanted to pay, but still cheaper and nicer than two rooms somewhere else. So I booked it, double checking all the details, and we tried to figure out the rest of the trip.
Bob worked Friday night, so there was no pressure to leave early Saturday morning. Actually, there was no pressure the whole trip, and that's what made the whole thing so nice. So Saturday morning I folded clothes into the suitcase while the children tidied up and played outside. Bob woke up about lunch time. We ate, cleaned up a bit (noticed the dishwasher was leaking), then read the Bible together before heading out. We stopped at the Shoppette to top up with gas and rig up a lid for the brake fluid. (The real lid disappeared. The auto hobby shop didn't have any. We ended up using the lid from a Vitamin Water bottle held in place with black tape.)
We were on our way! Traffic wasn't too bad until just after we got on the M25 (London Orbital). The Dartford Crossing - a bridge across the Thames - is a toll road, and cars were queued up for the toll gate for about 45 minutes. 45 minutes to go 5-10 miles. But we weren't in a hurry, so it wasn't terrible. We passed a Ferrari twice. ;-) I was ready to run screaming from the car by the time we got through the toll, so we decided to exit for Bluewater shopping mall to have a walk and some dinner. (There were a couple other possible stops, but that's what we decided on.)
We marveled once again at the size of the place, the vast parking lots that were nearly full (and free!), and the clearly marked signs. Got a spot, stopped by the toilets (I guess every entrance has a toilet next to it), and walked around a little. When we got to the food court we thought Nandos sounded good. Even though it was early, we had to wait for a table. It was a nice big table, close to the counter so we could order and get drinks while keeping an eye on the children. Nandos serves chicken. Just chicken. You can get it on a bun, as wings, in a wrap, or as 1/4, 1/2, or a whole bird, and you can order your preference of spices. The children all got mild, but Riah still complained his was too spicy. Bob and I shared a whole chicken with Ella and William. They liked it more than I expected, and between us all there were no leftovers. The best thing about Nandos is it offers free soft drink refills (very unusual in Europe), and has lovely ice (like Sonic), and the children's meals come with unlimited frozen yogurt.
After dinner we walked a little more and then got back in the car. It was about 45 minutes to our hotel from there.
Broome Park is off the main road. The entrance is gated, and down a typical English country house driveway (narrow and winding). Reception was in a great old house, very impressive and imposing. It was packed out with fancy ladies and men in tuxes when we arrived. Bob and I felt a little trepidation as we approached the front door, but the two greeters flanking the doorway (with trays of drinks) happily pointed us towards the reception desk. We threaded our way through the loud crowd, and checked in. The lady at the desk was very friendly and helpful, though noting that Expedia had only just sent the reservation through, so the "babycot" (pack and play) wasn't set up yet, but she'd bring one around soon.
We got our keys and directions, and drove down the winding road through the woods to our lodge. There are 12 lodges, each one a stand-alone house. We had a designated parking spot a little ways from the house, which was tucked in between the trees. Before we unloaded anything, Bob took pictures of all the rooms, which included a living room, a dining/kitchen, bathroom, "twin-bedded" room, and the master bedroom with a king size bed and its own bathroom (with whirlpool tub). Nice. Then we unloaded the car and tried to settle in. The children have their own way of settling into a hotel room, which involves a lot of running around, opening and closing doors, and jumping on all the furniture. As we were in a house we didn't feel compelled to restrain them quite so much as we do in a regular hotel, with other people under, over, and next door.
We had Bible time, and started making up the beds. The girls got the bedroom, with one on each bed and one on the floor (on a thick pallet). The boys fought over the sofa and the sleeping bag (not bothering to make out the sofa bed). Riah won and got the bag, but soon switched with Ced and they were both happy. The playpen/babycot arrived and William was glad to see it. Bob and I retired to our room; I took a bath and then we checked out the TV. Each room had a big flat screen tv. We watched Catwoman, with Halle Barry. I wasn't impressed. Neither of us slept terribly well, but we are used to that.
Sunday morning I awoke to the sound of William singing. We all got dressed and had breakfast of cereal and oranges. After another Bible reading we got in the car and drove down to Dover. First we drove through town, to Samphire Hoe (www.samphirehoe.com) - a little park on the coast. We walked around a little while and looked at the ocean. Then we went back to Dover and tried to find the Western Heights. It took a little doing, but we eventually got to Fort Redoubt (it's closed, but you can walk around the moat). On the walk up to it we picked a few blackberries. We never found the church remains that are supposed to be up there someplace.
Then we went to Dover Castle. We had an early lunch picnic on the edge of the parking lot. Dover Castle is pretty nice. First we toured the "Secret Wartime Tunnels" with it's headquarters, communications, and hospital. Cedwryck really liked this part. Then we saw a display/video about Henry II (who built the castle) and how he grew his empire but lost his family. Then we walked through the keep. Most of the rooms are done up in the style of Henry II (1154-1189), and the king himself made an appearance, along with Princess Alice of France and a few others. The keep is quite large, on three floors (I think! There's a bit of up and down and across and down and up to get around). We saw (mannequins and video displays of) stewards, armorers, cooks... It was pretty interesting and very well done for English Heritage. (They try, but a lot of their stuff seems really cheap and corny.)
We'd talked about having dinner at TableTable in Dover, but by the time we were done with the castle we felt a little tired and frazzled, so we headed on out of town a bit to a McDonald's we'd seen on the way in. Not gourmet, but we got full anyway. At that little town we also stopped at a grocery/convenience store and got some hot chocolate and cookies for later.
Back to the lodge where we talked over what we'd learned today, and had a nice Bible time. Some of our "neighbors" were out walking, and looked up and grinned at us singing together. (Those big windows were made for looking through, not to be covered up with curtains.) After the little ones went to bed, Bob and I had our snack and watched The Mask (not impressed - I had seen that one before).
Monday morning we had oatmeal and toast for breakfast, packed up and checked out. We went south-east to Walmer Castle, which was pretty nice. It was built by Henry VIII, and has been home to William Pitt, W.H. Smith (there's a store chain named after him), and the Duke of Wellington, among others. One garden there was a birthday present for the Queen Mother on her 95th. The House (sort of built into the keep on one side) is mostly a museum of Wellington, with a little about Queen Victoria thrown in. The gardens are nice, too, with a woodland walk, a nice open place where the children climbed a tree and we had a snack, and the kitchen garden. I was taking notes of the kitchen garden. Espaliered apple and pear trees marked the boundaries, and in the beds were everything from strawberries to Brussels Sprouts to sweet corn and tomatoes. Ummm, makes me want to dig up my whole back yard.
When we finished there we went on to Deal to find a place for lunch. We'd been to the castle there before, so didn't bother about it. We parked and Bob took the children down on the beach to throw rocks in the ocean while I crossed the street to a Fish N Chips place. Bob got fish, I got a bacon roll, and the children got cheeseburgers (they actually seemed to be made with beef!). It was all made fresh, so tasted pretty good, and was nice and hot.
We decided to go north east before heading west, so as not to drive through the middle of Canterbury. This took us right past Reculver Towers (an English Heritage ruin), so we stopped there and walked around a bit. I actually stayed at the car, as William was asleep and we hated to disturb him. The road down to Reculver was a single lane, and at an intersection there was zero visibility. We guessed, and turned. (We've had many opportunities to quote from Blinkin in "Men in Tights" - "I *guess* no one's coming.") There was a car coming, down the middle of the road we turned on, but he stopped in time. Just, he stopped in the middle of the road. So we turned around him, but didn't quite make it, rubbing fenders a bit as we passed. So we stopped, and suddenly 4 other cars appeared. They had to wait while Bob got out and he and the other man decided the damage wasn't worth bothering about. (Thank You, Lord)
Back on the road, we made good time around London, and headed home. It was still early (about 4-4:30) when we hit the Cambridge exit, so we went on down that way. Drove out to the leisure center, knowing there were a few dining options. We looked at the Mexican place and the Italian place, then went upstairs to check the Chinese buffet - WOW that's pricey! So back down, and we decided on an Italian - Bella Italia, I think. The waiter was not as helpful as we'd like, but we got it ordered. I had grilled chicken, which was very good, and Bob had lasagna, which came with nothing. It was mostly cheese, and he was wishing for some bread or even salad to go with it. The children seemed happy with their pizza and spaghetti.
Back to the car, where the machine wouldn't read the validation on the parking ticket, so we paid at the counter and the man let us out.
I've been typing all morning, and I left out little details like dropping the video camera -twice- and a few other things that would make the story more interesting, but I guess it will have to do. Maybe if I took more vitamins... ;-)