Once upon a time, the handsomest king in Europe (i.e., the only one without the Habsburg jaw) married the most beautiful woman in his court. On their honeymoon, they stayed at a charming castle. Then they lived happily ever after.
Nah, just kidding. The King was Henry VIII. You know this didn’t have a happy ending.
Unless you’re an American, in which case you’re hazy on all history before 1776.
Unless you’re an American with a history major, in which case you probably had a six-foot poster showing the family tree of all the monarchs of England instead of a supermodel. (Right, Big Brother?)
In this case, the castle was Thornbury. The Duke of Buckingham began Thornbury Castle around 1510. Said Duke forfeited the castle to the King — along with his head — amid charges of treason a decade later. This should have served as a warning to the new queen, Anne Boleyn. It did not. She lost her head several years after her visit to Thornbury Castle. (Sometimes, I imagine Henry VIII tossing heads out to the London mob like Oprah: “You get a head! And you get a head! Everybody gets a head! Nay, I jest — Anne of Cleves, you get a divorce!”)
But back to the castle. It fell into disrepair until the 1800s, was restored, and eventually morphed into a luxury hotel.
When I planned our trip to England, I initially wanted to visit Alnwick Castle (used by the producers of Harry Potter and Downton Abbey). Unfortunately, Alnwick is practically on the border with Scotland — many, many hours from London. Alnwick also doesn’t allow overnight guests. In fact, most of the surviving castles that are not owned by the Queen are in the north.
Thornbury Castle, however, is just a few hours west of London. It’s also expensive. Really, really expensive. I agonized over just how expensive two nights would be.
Then I thought, “But goddamnit, if I’m going to England, hell, yeah, I’m gonna stay in a castle, because that’s the one thing I can’t do in the United States.” (After this epiphany, I swore I would never, ever laugh at Europeans who insist on going to see the Hollywood sign or visiting dude ranches again.)
I booked a room at the castle. Plus the dinner, the bed-and-breakfast option, and an afternoon tea.
I may NOT have told my budget-conscious Chinese-American husband EXACTLY how much the castle cost until after our flight took off. In fact, I may have waited until he’d been served his free dinner. I may also have waited until he’d had free beers, had watched free movies, and said, “God, I love these international flights! I haven’t felt this pampered on a plane in years!”
Yeah, that’s when I told him. Cuz — not my first rodeo.
Andy took it well, especially after I explained how I’d saved us money by booking the dinner, breakfasts, and tea in advance.
He took it less well the following day, when he discovered how expensive London is for everything but cider from Tesco.
By the second day, the man was muttering darkly at everything from our (i.e., MY) Harrod’s receipt to the menu for tea across from St. Paul’s Cathedral. He was cross with the expensive London hotel that had a sloping floor, the miniscule sink in the bathroom, and – especially – the cost of an ale with only 4% alcohol. He was grumpy about rude tourists, the never-ending construction (some of it on the street right outside our hotel), and the fact that the never-ending construction made it difficult to find bus stops and Underground Stations near the British Museum.
Andy perked up at the Tower of London, though. Perhaps it was all the weaponry in the White Tower. Maybe Andy fantasized about blowing up the VAT tax. Or his jolly mood might have owed something to the fact that the Tower of London is the first museum he’d ever been to that sold beer (right next to the raven exhibit, in case you were wondering). In any case, Andy was cheerful as we stood in line for the torture exhibit at the Wakefield Tower.
[Fun fact: the line for the torture exhibit is longer than the one for the Crown Jewels or beer. Work out what this means for humanity and despair.]
Andy’s grumbles returned with the bill for our “nice” dinner out near Buckingham Palace. I cast longing glances at the little shops around the palace, but firmly told myself that I did not need a gilt-edged teacup and saucer commemorating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
By the time we’d collected our rental car, cursed out Google repeatedly, hit two potholes (no matter what Andy claims, I assure you they were POTHOLES and not the curb) at Heathrow, and made two undscheduled K turns on our way to the M4, I was in as foul a mood as Andy.
And then we got to Thornbury Castle:
After sherry, we went for a walk around St. Mary’s Church, which dates back to the Norman era. We had to take shelter there when a rainstorm turned into hail, along with some British tourists. (They informed us that the rain was typical. “The hail, though,” they shook their heads, “That’s definitely not typical.” Andy laughed, pointed at me, and said, “It is for her!”)
After the hail, we wandered back to hotel, checked out the Tudor gardens, and I asked about a tour with the local historian. They had one scheduled during our dinner reservation, so I had to decline. (Andy cheered, since it’s 10 pounds.)
Diner service was impeccable – despite their extensive wine list, our waiter did not bat an eyelash at our plebian demands for ale and cider. Our dinner was delicious, with scallops, fillets, and lamb cooked to perfection. We finished it off with brioche treacle tart and waddled away from the table.
I’m still not sure how we made it up these stairs:
But we did, and collapsed into food coma on our glorious, king-sized bed. The bed, by the way, was heaven after our sloping double in London. Soft as a cloud. I still talk about that fantastic bed, and the giant jacuzzi tub.
Andy still talks about the toilet:
The next morning, Andy had his English breakfast and I had the best eggs Florentine ever. Stuffed again, we
staggered wandered around the village, which was gearing up for an art festival. We even checked out the local potter (future post).
After tea, we walked down a country lane. We even passed the carefully labeled “Vicarage,” so I could check that off my “UK Bingo” card.
We spent another night on the fabulous mattress in the fabulous castle and had another delicious breakfast (eggs Benedict). As we were eating, I told Andy how restful this part of our trip had been.
He agreed. “Yeah, after all the running around London, this is so relaxing.”
“And quiet,” I added. “Even when other people are around, no one raises their voice. Everyone speaks softly, respectfully.” I tried to figure out why. Was it a different class of people? I didn’t think so. I know plenty of rich, loud people. And then it finally clicked for the atheist. I exclaimed, “It’s the castle! It’s old, made of stone, and formal! It feels like a church! Instinctively, everyone lowers their voice!”
Well, except for the American who was so delighted with this revelation that she practically shouted it in the silent breakfast room.
After the shocked stares, my mumbled “sorry,” and Andy’s strangled laughter into his napkin, we gorged on a few more pastries. A few pictures and many wistful sighs later, we loaded up our luggage and said farewell to Thornbury Castle.
On our flight home, I asked Andy what his favorite part of the trip had been.
Instantly, he replied, “The castle.”
That was over a month ago. Since then, we discovered that we got screwed on the rental car, the VAT tax, and plenty of other items. Andy has bitched about London’s hidden tourist taxes repeatedly. Our visa bill for the trip has come and gone. So has the money in our checking account.
But not once has my husband complained about the cost of Thornbury Castle.
If you want to know more about the history of Thornbury Castle, you can check out Nathen Amin’s post.
If you want cool drone footage or to see the ungodly — BUT TOTALLY WORTH IT –room rates, check out the official website for Thornbury Castle.