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How To Visit England Without Leaving Home

Updated on February 28, 2012

If England is your cup of tea...

don't let the economy keep you from popping across the Pond for a day, a weekend, or even only a few hours.

As for any journey, Armchair Travel does require a bit of advance preparation, but only a bit.

Most of the gear you'll need for the "trip" is available at bookshops such as Barnes & Noble or Borders, or at your local video store or public library. Or if all else fails, at, where it's my experience the only difference between "new" and "used" titles is the price.

If you've had the good fortune to visit England in the flesh...even once...then you're already aware there are really only two destinations in England: Greater London, or The Country (everything outside Greater London).

If "your" England is the Queen and the Royal Family (and the pomp and pageantry that surround them), or Big Ben and the Tower of London, then I recommend the following DVDs:

Windsor Castle: A Royal Year: three 1-hour segments about daily life at Windsor Castle, the Queen's favorite residence twenty five miles from London, but also includes footage of many of the official functions she and the royal family perform in or from Buckingham Palace in London (or more accurately, Westminster).

A City in Time: London: From the "City In Time" series, alas it's no longer available brand-new, so if you do run across it, snap it up!  A two-hour documentary that chronicles London's history from Roman times to the present. A quite nice substitute for an in-person visit to the Museum of London.

The Tower of London: A Questar, Inc. production which in addition to a tour of the Tower grounds, takes you inside the several buildings that comprise this fortress on the River Thames. As well as being extremely knowledgeble about the Tower and its history, the guide is quite entertaining!

The Tower. I've not viewed this personally (yet), but reviews say it's great.

Notting Hill: A glimpse of London that doesn't involve History or Royalty. The travel book shop Hugh Grant's character works in was a real bookshop in the Notting Hill section of London, but is now a furniture store called Gong, and the travel bookshop has moved around the corner. Pocket parks like the one he and Julia Roberts' characters sneaked into abound all over Greater London, but many aren't private, residents-only like the one in the movie. (Feel free to fast forward through the scenes involving Hugh Grant's disgusting roommate.)

A Musical Tour of London and Oxford: A one-hour tour of the two cities set to classical music. Be aware there are no subtitles and no narrator speaking softly in the background telling you what you're looking at, so you'll be clueless in parts that don't include major landmarks (and even some that do). For the most part, however, the music is appropriate to each location. (NOTE: I recommend watching it once all the way through, and thereafter only to set the mood while reading any of the following):

Good London Reads:

The London Ritz Book of Afternoon Tea, by Helen Simpson. A tiny book about the ritual of afternoon tea at the exclusive Ritz Hotel on Piccadilly, next to Green Park. Filled with recipes of the goodies one would enjoy there, with both English and American measurements.

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens: Peter and Wendy, by J.M. Barrie and Peter Hollingdale, ed. Best read sitting on a bench or under a tree in Kensington Gardens within sight of the Peter Pan statue, but any "enchanting" spot in a park of your choice, or even in your own backyard, will do. (Background music not necessary for this one.)

The Perfect London Walk, by Roger Ebert and Daniel Curley, with photographs by Jack Lane. A walk across Hampstead Heath to the top of Parliament Hill, highest point in London, then into and through Highgate Cemetery, nearby Waterlow Park, and ending in Highgate village. Begun in the Victorian era, Highgate is unlike any other cemetery on the planet, with acres of angel statues and elaborate mausoleums. It fell into disrepair and has only been recently restored by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery. The villages of Hampstead and Highgate are two of London's secrets, because as the locals like to point out...rather gleefully!...they're an inch or two above the top of any tourist map. The book's only "flaw" is the dozens of photos chronicling the walk aren't in color.

84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff, and the movie of the same name based on it. Both cover the period from 1949, as England is just beginning to recover from World War II, until near the end of the 1960s.  Although the script writer did a fabulous job of turning a book of letters into a first-rate movie, I recommend reading the book before watching the movie (if you can find a copy), as the film doesn't reference all of the letters between Helene in New York and the staff at Marks & Co. in London.

My Love Affair With England: A Traveler's Memoir, one of three "travel England" books by Susan Allen Toth (1992). Wasn't sure which category to put this in, because although the title doesn't include London, nearly half the book is devoted to Ms. Toth's visits there. Only the back half takes you into the country.

England For All Seasons. Another of the "travel England" books by Susan Allen Toth (1997), and like "Love Affair" divided between London and The Country. But this one includes chapters on England's magnificent gardens, "garden visiting" being peculiar to the English and right up there with their fondness for visiting old churches and churchyards.

A Getaway Guide To Agatha Christie's England, by Judith Hurdle. Ms. Christie lived at several places in London, and of course shopped there. Many believe Brown's Hotel in Mayfair was the setting for At Bertram's Hotel, while others claim it was Fleming's Hotel, also in Mayfair, which more closely resembles the hotel described in the book. A handy guide for a real trip to London or to Torquay, the English Riviera on the coast of Devon.

But perhaps you prefer to visit the "Real England"

...of thatched roofs and tiny villages nestled in the rolling hills of the Cotswolds, the Dreaming Spires of Oxford, and the clotted cream of Devonshire that have long inspired authors such as Shakespeare and Jane Austen.

If this is your first visit ever, watch:

1. Visions of England: The opening is rather corny, with "The White Cliffs of Dover" being sung in the background while a cruise ship steams toward those same white cliffs (which are chalk, not rock, btw). However, you do get a real sense of arriving from somewhere else. A map would've been helpful, if only at the beginning, with places the film visits marked for future reference. Since no such map is included, just know that for a bit it stays pretty much along the South Coast, then jumps all over. It does use subtitles to identify each location or landmark, but not by shire (county), and the narrator doesn't always include this information either. But all in all, a great film for leaving home for an hour or so.

2. Video Visits: Discovering England: Similar to "Visions" but different locations, and without the musical intro. No subtitles, either, but it does have bare-bones maps. Be aware that the narrator's accent is rather thick, so much so that even though I've watched this several times, I'm still not sure of the name of one port town in Cornwall. I think it's St. Ives, but won't bet the farm on it.

3. The Holiday: Okay, only half...Cameron Diaz and Jude Law's half...takes place in England. But the cottage she stays in, Kate Winslet's character's, is positively enchanting. You'd never know it's only a shell built for the movie in a field outside the village of Shere, Surrey, only a tiny bit more quaint than most English villages...reminds me of the side streets of Windsor near the castle. Cottage interior scenes were shot on a soundstage in Hollywood. If you're a fan of 1940's romantic comedy repartee, Kate Winslet's scenes with Eli Wallach are absolutely priceless. Jude Law and Jack Black aren't hard on the eyes (or ears) either. (Hint: if your ear isn't attuned to Brit accents and speech patterns, activate Subtitles|English so you won't miss one witty line.) DO watch the Special Features.

Or read:

1. The Heart of England: A Journey of Discovery, from defunct Victoria Magazine, claims to "contain the essence of rural England".  I wouldn't go quite that far, more a peek at how a rural Victorian home might've been decorated.  "Might've" being the key word if the decorators had been sent out by a glossy magazine.  For authenticity, better to watch Judi Dench movies set in the Victorian period.

2. Time For Tea: Tea and Conversation with Thirteen English Women, by Michelle Rivers. A different take on the British institution known as Afternoon Tea, from thirteen women who don't live in London. Much insight into Life in the Country, sprinkled with tea-time recipes in both Brit and American measures.

3. England As You Like It: An Independent Traveler's Companion, by Susan Allen Toth (1995). From her "travel England" series. Many pages devoted to packing and other utilitarian travel tips, and many on travel in Scotland. But sandwiched in between are chapters on Padstow in North Cornwall, Daphne Du Maurier country (also Cornwall), and Dorset.

4. The Book of Old Tarts, by Elizabeth Hodder. Sadly, out of print or otherwise unavailable. If you're lucky enough to come across a copy, snap it up! Even if you never make any of the recipes, it's a delightful read. I first saw it in the kitchen of Lower Clavelshay Farm B&B ( near North Petherton in Somerset , and HAD to have copies for myself and my daughters. In 2005 Sue Milverton, the wonderful chef who runs the B&B, opened Clavelshay Barn Restaurant on the property, featuring the farm's beef and produce. (

Perhaps you'd like to go back in time...

A list of English period movies could go on and on, so here are some of my favorites:

1. Shakespeare In Love with Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes. A somewhat accurate depiction of London in the early 1600's, with a nice peek inside the present-day Shakespeare's New Globe Theatre on the South Bank. Also scenes filmed inside the church of Bartholemew the Great.

2. Nicholas Nickleby (Anne Hathaway and Charlie Hunnam). Another look at the early London of open sewers and dirty air, but also English inheritance laws, and how poor young girls were often "sold" to wealthy older men to keep their families out of the poorhouse.

3. Sense and Sensibility, from the novel by Jane Austen. Either the 1995 version with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant, or the 2008 version with Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield as the Dashwood sisters. Either follows the storyline fairly faithfully, but the locations and cinematography in the 2008 version seem much richer.

4. Emma, another film adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, with Gwyneth Paltrow. An absolute delight, and the cinematography is outstanding!


5. Becoming Jane, with Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy. About Jane at around age 19 before her books were published, and her brief, tragic relationship with Tom Lefroy, the reason all of her novels have happy endings. Anne Hathaway not only did her senior thesis on Jane, her resemblance to pen and ink images of JA is eery. Keep a stack of hankies handy.

6. Pride & Prejudice with Kiera Knightley, Matthew MacFadyen, Brenda Blethyn, and Donald Sutherland. With all due respect to Colin Firth fans, this is THE best version of the Jane Austen classic. Groombridge Place, near Tunbridge Wells on the border of Kent and East Sussex in southeast England, was used for the Bennett's home, Longbourn. Basildon Park, a magnificent 18th Century Palladian mansion overlooking the River Thames in Berkshire was used for the temporary home of Mr. Bingley. Burghley House, near Stamford in Lincolnshire was used for Rosings, home of Lady Catherine de Bourg, aunt of Mr. Darcy and patron of Mr. Collins. Chatsworth in Derbyshire, largest private country house in England and home of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, was used as Pemberley, Darcy's family home. Wilton House near Salisbury, the family home of the Earl of Pembroke, provided a suitably grand setting for some of the interior scenes at Pemberley, namely the drawing room where Elizabeth Bennett meets Darcy's sister, Georgianna. (That same room was also used as Queen Victoria's drawing room at Osbourne House, Isle of Wight, in "Mrs. Brown".)

NOTE: I recommend watching "Becoming Jane" first, else you'll think its screenwriter plagiarized chunks of script from P&P, when in fact Jane Austen had only begun P&P in "Becoming", so you're seeing and hearing parts of it as she writes them.


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