Visiting Family in England

It’s July 2010 and I’m off on what is essentially a family holiday. Michael and I are taking three weeks to visit my brother in Cheltenham, England followed by Michael’s family reunion in Tramore, Ireland and finishing with almost two weeks in Estonia, where Michael’s granny was born.

The trip started at a slower than expected pace. Arriving at Heathrow airport looking forward to some non airline food and a bed to sleep in, UK customs proved that they had a very different idea and presented us with the longest queue I have ever seen in an airport. Now I know the Brits like to queue, but an hour and a half is just ridiculous! We finally got through customs to find our bags had been removed from the carousel and placed…somewhere!?! So two hours after our flight arrived, we met my brother and drove to Cheltenham to be welcomed by my sister and her daughter as well as my sister-in-law and her two children. It was especially fantastic to see my niece and nephew, Nathalie and William as I hadn’t seen them for over eighteen months and they had grown so much.

Day 1: Sunday – Riding in the Royal Forest of Dean

As we had arrived on a Saturday, we were able to spend Sunday with everyone. Thanks to William’s lungs, we woke up at 6am and, after a few games of kick ball, we headed off to the Forest of Dean. The Forest of Dean has a long and varied history, being settled at different times by English, Welsh, Romans and Vikings. A large area was reserved for royal hunting before 1066, and remained as the second largest Crown forest in England, the largest being New Forest. In 1296, miners from the area were used by King Edward I at the siege of Berwick-on-Tweed in the Scottish Wars of Independence. As a result, the king granted free mining rights within the forest to them and their descendants. These rights continue to the present day. Nowadays, while the Dean is a working forest producing a sustainable yield of timber each year, the largest attraction is the beauty of the forest. It even managed to draw in J. K. Rowling for ten or so years.

We were also there to enjoy the scenery, with plans to cycle around the short family bike path. There were a few hiccups along the way…a couple of falls and slightly too many hills, but overall it was an enjoyable day and the sun came out long enough to enjoy a picnic at the park and a short play in the playground.

It was also a tiring day, as you can see…

Nat and Will asleep in the back…
And big cousin Emma in the front!

Day 2: Monday – Slimbridge Wetland Centre and Welly Boot Land

The next day we saw David off to work then Julie and Emma off on their travels. Suzy, Michael, Nathalie, William and myself went off to the Slimbridge Wetland Centre to check out the ducks and flamingos and, as it turns out, the gates and tractors. Slimbridge Wetland Centre is a wetland reserve in Slimbridge (halfway between Bristol and Gloucester) and exists to care for and study ducks, geese and swans of the world.

Big fishes!
The pink (and orange) flamingo
Nat feeding the birds

Whilst Nathalie was very excited to see the birds, William found the gates more exciting. The highlight of the day though was when William spotted a tractor. The look in his eyes was just delightful – must have been the first tractor he’d seen in real life!

William with the “Trac Trac”

We polished off lunch, had a play in the playground and wandered off to Wellyboot land. What is Wellyboot land you say? Well, in winter it would be a playground requiring Welly boots. However, in summer, it was a small kids playground with a stream and a few play items. Nathalie and William just couldn’t get enough of it.

In the playground
More Welly Boot Land!
Welly Boot Land!

And I just can’t finish off the day until I show you the photo of William pushing Nathalie in the pusher…

Will pushing Nat?

Day 3: Tewkesbury Tuesday

On Tuesdays, Nathalie and William spend the morning at school so Michael and I decided to take some time and visit a local town called Tewkesbury, famous for it’s abbey. Supposedly named after a hermit called Theocalious, Tewkesbury was built on the confluence of the River Severn and the River Avon in the 7th century. There is evidence suggesting there was a considerable Benedictine congregation prior to the Norman Conquest in 1066 but not long after the conquest, in approximately 1090, the Tewkesbury Abbey was begun. Partly due to it’s location on the ‘crossroads’ of two rivers, the town was the location of the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4 May 1471. This battle was one of the decisive battles of the Wars of the Roses (between the Houses of Lancaster and York). Here, the forces loyal to the House of Lancaster were completely defeated by those of the rival House of York under their monarch, King Edward IV. The Lancastrian heir to the throne, Edward, Prince of Wales, and many prominent Lancastrian nobles were killed during the battle or were dragged from sanctuary two days later and immediately executed. In the Reformation Period, Tewkesbury played an important part in the development of religious dissent. It was at this time that much of the abbey was destroyed.

The central roundabout in Tewkesbury today

We started the day off with a trip to ‘Out of the Hat’, a 17th century building housing both the Tourist Information Centre and a number of interesting displays about life in Tewkesbury, now and in previous eras. The most interesting display, and in fact the one that we went to see, was the display of the 2007 floods where the town was almost underwater. For pictures of this event, see the wikipedia site for Tewkesbury.

From the Tourist Information Centre, we headed off on a combination of the centre’s walking tour of attractions and the walking tour of alleys (we decided that given the town essentially has one main street, we could probably cover off both in the same trip). After enjoying some of the lovely architecture of the main street, we headed down the street to the Abbey Mill. Abbey Mill is thought to have foundations dating from the 12th Century, when the River Avon was diverted through the town. The present building is much later though, having been built in 1793. The east side of the mill was added later still in the 19th century. The fictional “Abel Fletcher’s Mill” in Dinah Craik’s novel “John Halifax, Gentleman” is based on this mill and the fictional town of “Norton Bury” is based on Tewkesbury. Tewkesbury is essentially a market town and has been a centre for flour milling for many centuries. Until recently flour was still milled at a more modern mill a short way upriver on the site of the town quay.

A view across the river from the mill
Some of the gorgeous architecture
A view of the mill from across the river

We then popped in at the abbey, and realising that a free tour began in about 40 minutes, we decided to grab some lunch at one of the ‘black and white architectured’ pubs. The food was well worth it, as was the wait for the tour. Our tour guide was amazingly knowledgeable and we learnt masses about British, French and religious history as well as the history of the abbey.

The outside of the abbey
The abbey altar

The Chronicle of Tewkesbury records that the first Christian worship was brought to the area by Theoc, a missionary from Northumbria, who built his cell in the mid-7th century near a gravel spit where the Severn and Avon rivers join together. The cell was succeeded by a monastery in 715, but nothing remaining of it has been identified. In the 10th century the religious foundation at Tewkesbury became a priory subordinate to the Benedictine Cranbourne Abbey in Dorset. In 1087, William the Conqueror gave the manor of Tewkesbury to his cousin, Robert Fitzhamon, who, with Giraldus, Abbot of Cranbourne, founded the present abbey in 1092. Building of the present Abbey church did not start until 1102, employing Caen stone imported from Normandy and floated up the Severn.

From the rear of the abbey

Robert Fitzhamon was wounded at Falaise in Normandy in 1105 and died two years later, but his son-in-law, Robert FitzRoy, the natural son of Henry I who was made Earl of Gloucester, continued to fund the building work. The Abbey’s greatest single later patron was Lady Eleanor le Despenser, last of the De Clare heirs of FitzRoy. In the High Middle Ages, Tewkesbury became one of the richest abbeys of England.

After the Battle of Tewkesbury in the Wars of the Roses on 4 May 1471, some of the defeated Lancastrians sought sanctuary in the abbey, but the victorious Yorkists, led by King Edward IV, forced their way into the abbey, and the resulting bloodshed caused the building to be closed for a month until it could be purified and re-consecrated.

A most brilliant scuplture outside the abbey

After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the people of Tewkesbury saved the abbey from destruction in 1539: Insisting it was their parish church, which they had the right to keep, they bought it from King Henry VIII for the value of its bells and lead roof which would have been salvaged and melted down, leaving the structure a roofless ruin. The price came to £453. The bells merited their own free-standing belltower, an unusual feature in English sites. After the Dissolution, the bell-tower was used as the gaol for the borough until it was demolished in the late 18th century.

The central stone tower was originally topped with a wooden spire, which collapsed in 1559 and was never rebuilt. Some restoration undertaken in the 19th century under Sir Gilbert Scott included the rood screen that replaced the one removed when the Abbey became a parish church. Flood waters, from the nearby River Severn, reached inside the Abbey in severe floods in 1760, and again on 23 July 2007.

After an enjoyable couple of hours in the abbey, we headed to the other end of town to see some more alley ways and old ‘black and white architectured’ buildings. It’s a bit ‘seen one seen the other’ but still some of the most gorgeous architecture I think you can find in Britian. And that, was the end of the day

Michael in an old alleyway
The oldest pub in Gloucestershire
Probably my favourite building

Day 4: Wednesday – Dreary Gloucester

From the rear of the cathedral
From the outside

Our last real day in England saw us visiting the town of Gloucester, famous for it’s cathedral. Indeed, as we learnt, it is also the place where the last Abbot at Tewkesbury Abbey became Gloucester’s first ‘Church of England’ minister.

The Gloucester Cathedral was built in 1089 as the Abbey church of a Benedictine monastery. In 1540, King Henry VIII abolished monasteries. The church might have been abandoned, but one of Henry’s predecessors was buried here, Edward II. So, it became a Cathedral and John Wakeman, last abbot of Tewkesbury, became its first bishop! The cathedral has a stained glass window containing the earliest images of golf. This dates from 1350, over 300 years earlier than the earliest image of golf from Scotland. There is also a carved image of people playing a ball game, believed by some to be one of the earliest images of medieval football.

The most notable monument is the canopied shrine of King Edward II of England who was murdered at nearby Berkeley Castle. In a side-chapel is a monument in coloured bog oak of Robert Curthose, eldest son of William the Conqueror.

But, more importantly, it’s famous for being the hallways of Harry Potter. How weird to be standing in the cloisters of Hogwarts!

It’s just like being in Hogwarts!


I think I’m standing on the point where
Mrs Norris was petrified!

The rest of Gloucester is a dreary place, with the docks being the other main tourist attraction. For those of you who don’t know what the docks are…think water and big, square, red brick buildings. Oh, and some boats…most of which don’t work anymore. Gloucester Docks is famous for being the most inland of docks and, I quote, has “fifteen Victorian Warehouses standing as proud guardians to Britain’s most inland port”. We also went to the National Waterways Museum where we learnt more than anyone’s fair share of information about canals (the waterways in England are mainly man-made), docks, locks and boats. Anyone who is keen on any of this…don’t ask me. Go to Gloucester!

The ugly red brick buildings of Gloucester Docks

And that was that! An enjoyable few days with my family and we were off to Wales and the home of Dr. Who…