Hay on Wye – The Town of Books

What more can a book lover possibly want?

The quaint town that is packed full of book shops. Even the pubs & the cafes have books stacked in them. It is also famous for its literary festival, when readers & writers from all over the world, descend upon it to discuss books.

My favorite bookshop has to be the ‘Murder & Mayhem’ which was stacked full of books on crime. So tiny from the outside but containing several ghoulish delights inside.

The ‘Rose’s bookshop of children’s & illustrated books’ contains some books that are really old, from the time that cloth was used to make books. This shop is a delight to walk through. Signed editions, first editions – you name it and they have it, as long as the book is aimed at children. The following photo shows the first edition Enid Blyton books at Rose’s bookshop.

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Everything in this town screams books:

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A cinema that has been converted to a bookshop:

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Hay-on-Wye, my kind of a town.

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It is nice to see such thriving independent bookshops instead of the usual charmless book-chains.

The Scarecrow trail

A Scarecrow trail in the neighbourhood! A lot of creativity displayed by most residents. Personally I prefer the traditional scarecrows made of straw and so no new-fangled minions for me! Residents vote for their favourite scarecrow. My favourite was the one titled ‘War Horse’ and another one called George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ (which came complete with seven commandments) and another one called ‘Chariots of Fire’. It took a good hour to walk the entire route.

Despicable me

Despicable me

ScareMacaw

ScareMacaw

Marilyn

Marilyn

Animal Farm

Animal Farm

Animal Farm (with the seven commandments)

Animal Farm (with the seven commandments)

Animal Farm

Animal Farm

Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty

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Snakes on the plane

Snakes on the plane

Sound of music

Sound of music

Phantom of the opera

Phantom of the opera

Alice in wonderland

Alice in wonderland

How to train your dragon

How to train your dragon

Super heroes relaxing

Super heroes relaxing

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Cruella de ville

Cruella de ville

Shrekcrow

Shrekcrow

War horse

War horse

Chariots of fire

Chariots of fire

Chariots of fire

Chariots of fire

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A night in haunted Gregynog Hall

The exterior of Gregynog Hall looked wonderful in the photos of the online booking website. It was set in all of 750 acres which basically translated into unlimited acres of gardens for the children to explore. With satisfactory reviews and cheap rates it looked like a good deal. After a quick round of discussion with two other families, who we were travelling with, we made our booking.

And then one by one the worms started crawling out of the woodwork. A quick Google search threw up page after page stressing the haunted nature of the hotel. It had been featured on the TV program ‘Britain’s most haunted’ and on the Paranormal channel. Further Google investigations revealed that it was a multitude of ghosts that was doing the hauntings not a single lone ghost as one would think. To make matters more exciting, we discovered that the bathrooms were located outside our rooms. Room number 7 was haunted by a ghost of a young girl, who chose to watch while you slept. The seating area was haunted by a spirit who disliked humans. The cellar was haunted by a servant. One of the rooms was haunted by a nurse who committed suicide by jumping out from the window of the room. Another school of thought believed that it was the lover of the nurse who was haunting the hall. The stories were numerous. One thing was for sure – our visit would be a memorable one, what with so many spirits wandering around the great house. I had toyed with the idea of spending a night in a haunted house in the past. I do not know whether I would have been motivated enough to actually book myself into one. Now I was being handed a haunted house on a platter and I was going to make the most of it.

We arrived mid-afternoon. The weather was cold and damp. It was Good Friday and the courtyard of the hotel was happily abuzz with children busy with their Easter trails. A lively barbecue was going on with the chef tantalizingly sizzling sausages with whole garlic and chopped onions – just the balm for a biting cold day.

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The rooms in the courtyard, which was the newer part of the house and located outside the main house, had private bathrooms. We were thinking of getting our rooms changed to the en-suite ones in the courtyard. However when the lady at the reception suggested that we take a look at the allocated rooms first before making up our minds, we agreed and I was glad that we did. The rooms that had been allocated to us were absolutely superb. They were the size of a mini badminton court with wonderful views over the garden. For me these rooms had the added benefit of being located in the main house (and therefore more likely to be haunted). We could see that there were at least five other toilets and bathrooms of varying sizes located next to our room and since there was only one other family on our floor with their own set of bathrooms located close to them, without any hesitation we opted to spend the night in our allocated supposedly haunted room (it was not room number 7). My friends though decided to use the courtyard rooms. They were not as in thrall with the atmosphere of the house as I was and their belief in ghosts was absolute.

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Meanwhile we had the full house to explore. We saw this old, dark gothic room which was built in 1640 and was and is used for weddings.

 

The library had all the major English classics, all of them in hardcovers. I could have gladly put up with several ghosts at once for a chance to spend a good amount of time in there.

The house was nearly 600 years old, huge and very easy to get lost in. Parts of it looked gothic. This boarded bathroom window for instance.  I am quite sensitive to the atmosphere that places exude but this place simply did not feel eerie or ghostly. I just found it beautiful. There was just one part of the house that looked a little sinister and that was the stairway leading to the cellar. When we asked the exceptionally friendly and helpful staff member about the hauntings, she told us that the house had been a happy one with numerous parties being held in it at one time which really told us all that we wanted to know.

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We sat for a while in the seating area where I played pranks on my friends by playing ghostly noises on my mobile phone and acting all nonchalant when asked where the noises were coming from. My friends were staunch in their belief that the house was haunted and found it difficult to entertain any thought to the contrary. They were not amused.

When we made our way to our rooms at night after an excellent meal, the passage to our room was dark, deserted and totally devoid of charm. It is amazing what a difference light can make. We searched for the light switch in that deserted corridor and only felt better after the light flooded in. When we entered our room we heard what can be described as a ticking sound. We noticed that it could only be heard when we walked around and so we decided to ignore it. This was an old, creaky mansion and it was bound to make these unexplained noises.

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Finally we settled down. For all my bravado, I found that I could not relax and could not close my eyes because of the totally irrational fear that I would see someone sitting by the edge of my bed when I opened them. I had to remind myself a number of times that I was a science loving rational individual living in the twenty first century, spending the night in a lovely house and that was all there was to it. Finally at around 2:00, I fell asleep. The ghosts did not trouble us.

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We woke up to the lovely view in the morning and I was jubilant not to have changed my room and glad not to have let the ghosts (or the thought of them) get the better of me. I was still the sane, rational individual that I knew myself to be.

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Burley village in the New Forest: of witches

   

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A witch lived in Burley not long ago. The locals were not very happy to have a witch living in their village and finally she decided to settle in the US. Since then the village came to be associated with witches. There are rumours of a witch coven still holding meetings in the forest. Even the shops here have a similar theme. Some of them even sell spells.

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After dining in one of the two village pubs, the first night that we were there, we set off to find our way back to our lodging. There were no street lights and it was pitch dark. Taxis stopped their service at 18:00 itself. Thankfully our lodge had given us a torch and along with the light from our mobile phones, we somehow managed to find our way back through the woods. And no, we did not hear the witches whispering in the woods. They seemed to be taking the night off. And no, not once did I feel unsafe. There is something comfortingly assuring about pretty English villages.

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Along with the Lake District, the New Forest is one place in England that I can never get enough of. There is always something new to discover on every visit.

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England’s prettiest villages- Burton on the water and the Slaughters

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Whenever friends or family come over from abroad for a visit, it has become almost obligatory to take them to the villages of Burton on the water, Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter for a visit. These appealing villages never fail to impress those tourists who are seeking the quintessential English Countryside and more than satisfy the mental image that first time visitors have conjured up about England. The village of Burton on the water has everything going for it – a super clean canal that runs through the village, pretty cottages with gardens adorned with flowers, tea rooms serving the English tea with scones, strawberry jam and cream et al, a maze, a model of the village and a bird park for the children, tiny antique shops with quaint goods too expensive to buy, petite ice cream parlours selling fresh organic ice creams and even an old fashioned perfumery which I am yet to visit. If you decide to visit one village in England then make it this one.

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Having visited the village for more times than I can remember, we decided to take in the model of the village, this time around. A replica of the entire village, as it existed in the 1930s, has been created here. It includes all the prominent buildings and houses of the village. So it has the Lloyds bank building. It has two churches with beautiful stained glass windows and you can even hear music if you put your ear to the window. It also has a replica of the model village within the model village itself. It is a wonderful display of craftsmanship and every detail has been taken care of. The windows of the cottages have different curtain displays. Decorative ornaments are displayed on the window sills just like in real cottages. Miniscule chairs and tables are displayed in some gardens. A miniature river runs through the village. Another unique feature of his village is that it has been created by local builders using local material, which are used for building the actual Cotswold cottages.

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In order to recognise the uniqueness, craftsmanship and historical value of the village, it has recently been given a grade 2 listed status by the English Heritage and is probably the only ‘model’ village to be given this status in England.

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The Slaughter villages are my personal favourites and I dare anyone to walk through them without clicking photos. Super clean and having won numerous awards year after year, these villages have remained unchanged, having refused to relinquish their appeal.

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Blenheim Palace: Some Intriguing Facts

Located in Woodstock in Oxfordshire, Blenheim Palace is a member of the treasure houses of England, which is a collection of the finest heritage properties in England. It is the only non-royal building in England to be termed a “palace”.

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The history

The land and money for the building work of the palace, was gifted by Queen Anne to John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough for his victory at the battle of Blenheim in 1704.

John Churchill’s wife Sarah was Queen Anne’s friend. Sarah and Queen Anne had opposing personalities. Whereas Sarah was pretty, assertive and dynamic, the queen was plain and reserved. The Queen was heavily dependent on Sarah and it is hinted that their relationship went beyond mere friendship. It was the Queen together with Sarah that decided on gifting a palace to the Duke of Marlborough.

The building work for the palace started in 1705.Whereas Sarah wanted Sir Christopher Wren to design the palace, the first Duke preferred John Vanbrugh. It was John Vanbrugh who finally was the main architect of the palace. Sarah did not get along with Vanbrugh and while Vanbrugh believed that the palace should be ostentatious, Sarah’s main priority was comfort. Things reached a breaking point and the architect was finally banned from visiting the palace. Meanwhile Sarah’s relationship with the Queen too deteriorated to such a point that the Duke and Sarah were exiled from the kingdom. They returned only after Queen Anne’s death and then completed the palace work at their own expense. Vanbrugh’s assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor finally completed the palace in 1722.

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Baroque architecture

The Palace is an example of Baroque Architecture. Baroque architecture is highly decorated with statues, animals, chimneys, urns and so on.

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A tax for windows

The Palace has approximately 1000 windows and 200 rooms. The size of the window depended on who the occupant of the room was. Servants therefore ended up with rooms having smaller sized windows.

From 1696 to 1851 a window tax was imposed in England. People were taxed for the amount of light that came in their houses via their windows and thus giving rise to the expression ‘daylight robbery’. The following was the tax imposed depending on the number of windows that a house had:

6 windows or fewer  –  nothing to pay.

7 – 9 windows – 2 shillings (10p)

10 – 19 windows – 4 shillings (20p)

20 or more windows – 6 shillings (30p)

To have a lot of windows was a sign of wealth as glass was also very expensive. Several residents bricked up their windows to avoid the tax. New houses were often built with lesser windows.

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Sir Winston Churchill’s birthplace

The palace is the birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. The room in which he was born even displays the vest that he wore during birth.

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The Sun dials

The garden at the palace had four sun dials out of which one had been missing for a long time because it had been sent for repairs. The missing sun dial was found recently in a box along with a bill for the repair work.

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The eyes in the Portico

The 9th Duke’s second wife Gladys Deacon commissioned the eyes in the Portico of the Palace. She climbed up the scaffolding to show the artist a scarf which had the exact shade of blue as her eyes. The 3 blue eyes belong to her. The origin of the brown eyes remains a mystery.

Gladys Deacon was renowned for her beauty during that time. She was known for her striking eyes. At the age of 22, she had wax injected into her nose in order to make her nose perfectly straight. The wax however settled along her jawline, marring her beauty a little.

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The long library

The long library has more than 10,000 books. A boy’s school was moved to the library during the war and it was then used as a sick bay and a dormitory. The boys were responsible for some cracked window panes during a game of cricket.

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The current owners

The eleventh Duke and Duchess of Marlborough currently reside in the Palace.

Films shot here

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Gulliver’s Travels, The Avengers, The Four Feathers, The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes.

Official Website: http://www.blenheimpalace.com/

The Swannery at Abbotsbury

According to the legend, the hatching of the first cygnets (baby swan) signifies the first day of summer. My visit to Weymouth was for pure leisure. However when I heard that there was a swannery nearby, I was keen to visit it. Feeding ducks and swans has almost become routine in parks and lakes in England, especially if you have young kids. However there was something about the swannery that intrigued. The website hinted that there was the possibility of watching an egg crack to see a cygnet being born. Now who could possibly resist that?

We arrived just in time for the feeding, which takes place from 12 to 4. A large crowd was already waiting. We somehow found a place from which we could peek through. The swans were some distance away. The crowds were kept in place away from the swans by means of a railing. This was the first disappointment. I had been under the impression that we would be left free to wander amongst the swans to feed them. There was a person addressing the crowds via a microphone who said that he would be taking the children in small groups to feed the swans. He gave an assurance that every child, without fail, would get a chance. True to his word, without any further delay my daughter was taken to feed the swans while we could only watch from behind the railing. In spite of having fed numerous swans and ducks on countless occasions in the past, she seemed to be thrilled by the experience.

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We set off on a designated path after the feeding. A volunteer came by with a bucket that had an egg in it which was about to hatch. It was already cracked and we could see something moving inside it. Fascinating to watch and worth half the price of the ticket, I guess. We then came across this swan that was sitting on her eggs and cygnets and nearly squashing them, in the process. We were hoping that an egg would crack open to reveal a cygnet being born but luck was not on our side that day.

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I do not know whether the site and the experience merit the charge of £11 per adult. However the combined ticket, which includes the Abbotsbury farm and gardens along with the swannery, gives better value for your buck. Overall an interesting and unique experience and very enjoyable for the kids. The site includes a small playground and a willow maze, which happened to be a lot of fun!

 

In search of England’s prettiest villages – Lacock

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The village of Corsham was included in our list because we had heard that peacocks roamed freely in the town centre. However we decided to drop Corsham at the last moment and went on to Lacock instead. Lacock is very much similar to Castle Combe.

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A stream runs through this village as well and the clear water tempts travellers to dip their toes in.

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I love the tradition that I observed in these villages, where the goods are displayed outside the house and you can put the money in through the letter box, if you decide to buy something. There were some flowering plants for sale here.

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And some books for sale, left outside this house.

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There is also the historic Abbey, which we did not have time to visit. I am amazed at the number of historic houses that are found all over England. You turn around a corner and there is a historic mansion waiting for you – all part of the charm of England and the Kingdom in general.

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After having seen Lacock, Castle Combe and Bibury, I’m veering towards Bibury at this point. However I have to admit that nothing beats the clean, charming villages of Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter and even Burton-on- water in North Cotswold. But I am not going to make a declaration just yet. The search for England’s prettiest village continues.

In search of England’s prettiest village – Castle Combe

Castle Combe is a forty minutes drive away from Bibury. The village is tiny and unlike any Cotswold village that I have seen so far. Castle Combe reminds me of the hill stations in India – Green, hilly areas with pretty stone cottages and tea rooms. Consistent with several other Cotswold villages, this one too has a river flowing through it.

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Even the toilets are pretty in Castle Combe.

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Only 350 people live in this village.

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Unlike Bibury, the buzz was somewhat missing from Castle Combe. The village has a tea room, which was unfortunately closed on the day we visited.

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And a post office, which is no longer in use.

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The garden steps from this house lead directly into the stream.

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A remembrance plaque in the village.

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Would the residents hear the stream flowing at night?

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Leaving Castle Combe, it was time to touch base at Tetbury, where we planned to stay overnight. The plan for the next day was to visit the villages of Lacock and Corsham.

In search of England’s prettiest village – Bibury

Castle Combe in South Cotswold has been unofficially listed as England’s prettiest village. Late Friday evening, we decided to test this claim. After a hurried Internet surf and a weather reconfirmation, we decided to include the villages of Bibury, Corsham and Lacock in our list of Cotswold villages to peruse.

Early Saturday morning, we set off. Thankfully the weather forecasters had been right this time. The weather was perfect –not too hot, not very cold and a bright sun to top things up. The first halt was Bibury and we parked in this street, just outside the church.

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Bibury is certainly a pretty village but is it pretty enough to beat the likes of Upper and Lower Slaughter villages in North Cotswold? We will have to see. After a short walk, we came across this sign.

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We headed in the direction of Birbury Trout farm and came across a delightful setting. A tiny stream bubbled through the village and the trout farm was ahead, waiting to be explored. Signs advertising cream teas were suddenly visible. There was greenery all around with the Cotswold stone cottages as a backdrop. Children with their grandparents were walking around a tiny waterfall that had formed in the stream taking full advantage of the good weather.

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We decided to visit the trout farm and feed the trouts – now that is a sentence, I never thought I would say. I have never seen so many trout in my life! They actually fight for the food that you put in the water. Put in a single pellet and around thirty come in at once for the feed. I tried to take a picture and managed to take this one.

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The trout farm is a good place to visit – enjoyable and informative at the same time. Needless to say, my daughter loved feeding the trout. There are around 8-9 pools of water where the trout are farmed and you can walk around feeding them. It even had a resident swan that was extremely possessive of the nest that it had built. I did not dare take a picture for fear of disturbing it. You can also fish for your own trout if you want.

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All in all, a very enjoyable morning and a village that I would like to visit again.

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What with the stream, the trout farm and fine weather, Bibury had definitely risen in prettiness stake but there was still Castle Combe to look into, which is where we headed to next.