Saturday, July 5, 2014

Flashback: An American Princess in England - Lumley Castle

Once upon a time...well, we all know where that leads. Every little girl wants to be a princess.  It's like a rule.  Even the best tomboys secretly want to be at least one of the Disney princesses. I won't lie; I did too, although my princesses didn't come out until recently (Merida from "Brave" and Anna from "Frozen" are the two most like me). Especially American girls because we grew up on Disney...what did everyone think would happen? 

When I was a 28-year-old, former Marine, corrections sergeant, princess in combat boots, making excellent money and doing a LOT of overtime (which translated to lots of COMP time), I decided to take some time off and go on my first major adventure abroad. Alone.  1999 - England, Scotland and Ireland (north and south) over about 5-6 week period.  I had a car (and learned to drive on the 'wrong' side at rush hour coming out of the airport in London!), a few maps, a tight itinerary and my vouchers. I had put together my vacation by buying pieces through British Airways.  I have no idea if they still do it, but it was a brilliant idea. What I did was to buy "pieces" for each part of the trip out of catalogs provided by the airline's travel company, and you chose where you wanted to stay. I especially liked the B&B section because you knew exactly where you were staying and if it looked safe and convenient. I bought one voucher for each B&B I stayed at, 2 hotels in London, ticket to "Phantom of the Opera", tours in the bigger cities and "Big Red Bus" tickets (hop on/off so I could park my car and not have to drive in the cities), all of my flights, both of my cars (one in Great Britain and one in Ireland) name it!  It really was a clever way of doing it. And the stress of trying to do everything on the fly was taken off my shoulders and when the time came, I had everything I could possibly need. Don't forget in 1999, the Internet was still growing and it wasn't as easy to buy and see everything you wanted to. We still used Foder's and Frommer's Travel books! And with my OCD mom and I doing the 'everything you can possibly see, and probably won't itinerary' (I swear, if I was going to see everything she had listed, I'd have to be up at 5am and on the road, but most of them didn't open until much later)', I was definitely NOT going to the normal tourist sites. I'll discuss the priest, the dolmen and the herd of cows in a later post. 

Since it was my first trip out of the US (Mexico & Bahamas excluded), and since I was being fairly frugal, I promised myself one night in an actual, real life castle. After quite a bit of research and looking at my maps and schedule, I chose Lumley Castle.  A beautiful old place on a golf course (No, I don't golf), they serve multiple course dinners, have a large wine selection and basically it was everything I wanted and more. The only thing was, because of cost, I had to get a room in the newer 'courtyard' area. Whatever!  I just want to stay in a freakin' castle, people!  I still had access to all the castle's facilities, I just wasn't staying in a real 'princess room'. I just figured it was out of reach so I would enjoy what I could get.

When I pulled up to the castle, I just knew I wouldn't be disappointed!  I parked and went into the reservation desk, which looked as if it should be where the old wine cellar (or dungeon?) used to be. It was definitely dark and felt like you were going underground. I got goosebumps! THAT is what I'm talking about! 

The people at the desk were so nice and friendly. However, they were doing construction on my
part of the castle so they couldn't put me in my reserved courtyard room. I was so bummed. But, have I mentioned I have a stellar gift of being in the right place, at the right time? You'll notice as you read more posts...the 'free- upgrades' God really likes me! The girl told me they were going to upgrade me to a TOWER ROOM for free.  Really?!?  Could I get more excited?  I think I was jumping from one foot to the other, like, "Oh. my god, this is too cool to be real! Oh, my god!" And other geeky-American touristy things to say. Or I might have looked like I was doing the pee-pee dance, now that I think about it. No further discussion on that issue, thank you. 

There was an older gentleman porter who came to help me with my luggage (if I was there 6 weeks, and only did laundry once, you can imagine how big my luggage was!). Plus I was a little prissy then, so a few dressier items took up my whole garment bag. He was asking me if it was my first time staying in a castle and I was like, it's my first time in England!  I think he must have taken me on the scenic tour because we went up some steps and down some and through some tight squeezes, maybe a tunnel and a well where an owner killed his wife (I'm not sure why this is, but in every castle I've toured, they talk about how one of the prior nobles killed their wife by dumping her in the well. I'm really quite sure they could have come up with something a bit more imaginative without spoiling the castle's drinking water, but whatever!).  Update: From Wikipedia: The castle is believed to one of the most haunted places in County DurhamLegend has it that the castle is haunted by the ghost of Lily Lumley, Ralph's wife, who was thrown down a well in the castle grounds by two priests for rejecting the Catholic faith. Knowing they would be in trouble, the priests told Sir Ralph that she left him to become a nun. Her ghost is said to float up from the well and haunts the castle.

When we finally arrived from the maze of hallways, I could look down to a central courtyard where a suit of armor was standing. At about that point, the gentleman opens the door for me and shows me into the room. I went from OMG to OMFG! in that one spilt second.  There is just no other way to describe it...OMFG. I was giggling!  I don't giggle!  Giggling is beneath me!  

The room was huge by American standards but in England, it's a penthouse! Every place I've stayed at in Europe (and this includes the major cities like London and Paris), you get a teeny-tiny room where you can barely fit a twin bed and your luggage. I have literally stayed at B&B's (Plymouth, for one) where a closet has been turned into a room. Really.  So anyway, back to my super-awesome-amazing castle room. There was a 400-year-old, canopied oak bed up on a dais with all the appropriate drapery. There was a writing desk, a sitting area under the windows for tea (yes I had tea in my complimentary robe...just because I could.), and a large wardrobe against one wall.  This whole time, I was just so excited, I don't remember anything I said (probably complete gibberish and possibly a new language altogether...or, I suppose, it could have been Klingon), but he knew I was having a blast.  It can sometimes be difficult to make the staunch English man smile, but he did, so that was just a bonus. I was seriously like dancing around with excitement at this point. I was just waiting for him to leave so I could break into every Disney princess song in the collection! Then the man says, "Do you notice anything missing?"  I looked around again and I'm like, "What could possibly be missing?" He said, "We apologize but there's no bathroom here, you'll have to share down the hall."  I was not about to let that burst my joy-bubble! I told him I'd been staying in B&B's for 3 weeks, so sharing a bathroom was not a problem. He gave me a smile and said, "Then I'll just hang your (garment) bag  in the wardrobe." Just when I was about to soar across the room and bounce on my 400 year old bed like a five-year-old, the porter said, "Oh my goodness! What's this?" Curiosity won out and I went to look inside the wardrobe. I didn't see anything until he reached through and grabbed a long bell-pull.  The light came on and it took me a minute to realize, there was a BATHROOM back there!  Through the wardrobe!! All mine! With a sink, and a sea-shell tub (complete with complimentary bubble bath, of course) and a old-style water closet. All in a secret room behind my wardrobe.  

Oh I was too excited for words!  I hugged him and screeched (another first!) with excitement and he was laughing. I think I was his entertainment for the day. I tipped him extremely well, and tried to decide: bed, bath or tea? Well, bath won out!  I don't even like baths but by god, I had one in my closet so I would take one that night! And the wardrobe door was closed so no one even knew I was there!  AWESOME. I took pictures from outside the wardrobe but it just didn't do it justice.

After my bubble bath, and my tea in a bathrobe, and maybe just a little more rolling around on my bed, I pulled out a short cocktail dress and decided I would live it up that night. I had an awesome, multi-course dinner in the restaurant, and a nice bottle of wine. OK, two. I wish I could remember what was on the menu, but just trust me that it was wonderful. Oh, how I killed the diet that night but I really just don't care. Yum.

At that time of my life, I occasionally had a cigar here or there (my then boyfriend and I liked to dress up and go out on Vegas date-nights to nice restaurants and Jazz clubs), and I had purchased a nice 'ladies' cigar earlier on the trip and thought it would be a great way to end the evening. So, after dinner, I took my bottle of wine and went to the library/lounge/bar. I sat in front of the fire, cigar and wine in hand, a book I was sort of reading, but mostly I just listened to what was going on around me. An amusing thing to do, just people-watch and people-listen. In this case, at the table behind me, there was a debate between four Englishmen and one American about the American death penalty. Now I love a good debate, and the death penalty is one I firmly believe in (that's the cop in me, I guess). But at one comment from team England and I snorted and chuckled. The boys turned and said, "Excuse me, are you laughing at US?" Uh, yeah!  That opened the door and they invited me to join in. Team America was looking pretty beat down at that point.  So, we debated back.  I explained my stance, that I'm from the South, where I worked, and that it should be used more. We must have sat there for 3 hours, and there were many more drinks flowing and that of course brought out the competitive men, and while I wanted to stay and win this debate, I didn't want to lose anymore time away from my room!

I slept great and it broke my heart to leave after only one night. The castle also does various events, like weddings of course, but also medieval role-playing murder mysteries. I could have easily spent another couple of days there. I never even got to see the grounds!  

All and all, this is one of the things I remember most about my long vacation in the UK. When I'm helping friends traveling abroad with their itineraries, Lumley is one I suggest to everyone. The people are friendly, there's great food and company and it's just a gorgeous place to stay if you want to really treat yourself. Again, I was there in 1999, so things might have changed a bit, but the website looks like they're still keeping it in great shape.  I wish I could remember the name of the room I was in, but I'm sure "Bathroom through the wardrobe," would get it done.  

I would consider this a five-star travel experience. After all, how many girls of all ages have really stayed in a castle and had a bubble bath through the wardrobe? They also do weddings, Elizabethan dinners, murder mysteries, and they also offer specials as well. The only possible way this could have been a more enjoyable stay, was if there was a huge hedge-maze in the back or a sighting of Lily Lumley's ghost. So, I am forced to only give it a 9 1/2 stars. Do enjoy!

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