European Adventure | Day 11

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Mom and I spent our last two full days of vacation exploring London. On April 16, we took a bus from Oxford into London. It was definitely more eventful than it should have been — we missed our first stop in London and the handle on Mom's suitcase broke — but we still made it to the hotel in one piece. We both enjoyed the cab ride to the hotel since our cabbie was an avid bird watcher who had visited Texas before.

Buckingham Palace

Tulips at Buckingham Palace

Mom at Buckingham Palace


Once we arrived at the hotel, we left our bags in the room and set off exploring again. Our hotel was located near Green Park, so we walked through it to get to Buckingham Palace. We enjoyed looking around the palace, but the area was definitely crowded because of the Easter holidays. We took a few pictures and then headed to St. James's Park, where we both had hot dogs for lunch.

St. James's Park

London calling

Making a call

Westminster Abbey

Our next stop was Westminster Abbey, which was one of my top places to visit in London. Fortunately, the line to get in wasn't that long, so we made it in quickly. We saw a lot of churches during this trip, but this one was by far the most impressive. I had to keep pinching myself to believe this was the place I had seen on TV during Will and Kate's wedding. The Poets' Corner at the end was one of my favorite spots, and I was able to find the plaques for Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters.

Horse Guards Parade

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square

After we left Westminster Abbey, we walked over to the London Eye. We had hoped to go up that day, but the earliest tickets were for 9 p.m. Instead, we bought tickets for noon the following day and decided to do something else. Since most of the museums were already closed at this point, we just walked around, visiting the Horse Guards Parade, Trafalgar Square, and Piccadilly Circus. We ate dinner at a place called Garfunkel's and then walked back to the hotel, stopping at a bookstore along the way.

Fourth of July Memories


This past weekend I celebrated the Fourth of July with my family in Henderson. These are a few things I want to remember...

  • Spending Friday afternoon at the farm doing our traditional holiday activities — eating hamburgers and homemade ice cream, working on a jigsaw puzzle, and relaxing around the cabin
  • Watching the Henderson fireworks show from a hill near Lake Forest Park
  • Eating homemade biscuits with my parents on Saturday morning
  • Driving over to Gilliam, Louisiana, to see the fields of sunflowers
  • Finding the NCAA Women's Gymnastics Championships on TV one night
  • Attending the Texas Shakespeare Festival in Kilgore once again — Mom, Dad, and I saw "Cymbeline"
  • Enjoying the covered dish supper after the combined church service on Sunday
  • Seeing the camels and other wildlife on my way back to Austin on Sunday

And a few pictures...

Celebrating the 4th

Celebrating the 4th

Jigsaw puzzle





European Adventure | Day 10

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Even after all the beauty of Paris and Normandy and the fun of the English countryside, today was the day we had been looking forward to the entire trip. We were going to Highclere Castle that evening!

In the morning, we took a guided tour of Oxford with Alistair, one of our guides. During our tour, he explained how the college system works (students apply to one of 38 colleges and attend weekly one-on-one tutorials with their professors) and took us to several of Oxford's most famous sights, including the Saxon Tower of St Michael at the North Gate (the oldest building in Oxford), the Martyrs' Memorial, the Bodleian Library, the Radcliffe Camera, the Covered Market, and the Ashmolean Museum. We also toured Trinity College, where a black cat came out to greet our group.

Saxon Tower of St Michael at the North Gate

Martyrs' Memorial

Trinity College

Bodleian Library

After the tour, Mom and I ate lunch and then split up for the next few hours. I toured Christ Church College, where many of the scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed. The most famous locations are the grand staircase and Dining Hall (Hogwarts' Great Hall). The Dining Hall was fascinating to explore as the walls were covered with portraits of famous alumni (including John Wesley), royalty, and other English greats. My time alone was also remarkable for another discovery: my first Dr Pepper since leaving the U.S. a week and half earlier. I definitely savored it.

Christ Church College

Christ Church College

Christ Church College

Boats in Oxford

Around 2:30, we boarded the bus for Highclere Castle, and you could just sense the excitement in the group. Before we went to the Castle, we stopped at Bowdown House for tea. Bowdown is still a real home owned by a couple who are friends with the owners of Viking. It was amazing to look around the house and think about all the history that had taken place there.

Bowdown House

Bowdown House

After we left Bowdown House, we were on our way to Highclere Castle. We arrived there around 5 and had time to explore the grounds and visit the gift shop before entering the door at 5:30 (after the guests for the day had left). They served us champagne and then took us on a tour of the home. It was amazing to see all of the rooms I had watched on TV so many times. While we were touring the upstairs, Lady Carnarvon, the current owner of the house, came out to greet us with her dog Bella. She talked with us for a while and even allowed us to take a few pictures downstairs. It was quite a treat.

Highclere Castle

Jackdaw's Castle

Highclere Castle

That evening we ate dinner at a local pub called The Yew Tree. I had fish and chips for dinner and a chocolate brownie for dessert. It was our last night with the Viking group, so it was time to say goodbye and remember all the good times from the last week and a half. After dinner, we came back to the hotel for our last night in Oxford.

European Adventure | Day 9

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Monday, April 14 marked our first full day to explore England.* Our day began at Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill. It was a majestic place, almost rivaling Versailles in France. My favorite room in the entire house was the library, of course. After the guided tour, we explored an exhibit on the estate during WWI and looked around the gardens, which featured some beautiful red tulips.

Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace

After leaving Blenheim Palace, we drove through the Cotswolds. It was beautiful country with rolling hills, grazing sheep, and more fields of yellow rapeseed flowers. We arrived in a small town called Burford around 1:00 that afternoon. Mom and I ate lunch at a bakery (we split a Cornish pastry and quiche) and then enjoyed looking around the town's many shops. We even had the opportunity to look through the wares at a local bazaar.


Union Jack

The Cotswold Arms

We drove on to Bampton that afternoon. Bampton is a small village with one really big claim to fame: It's the shooting location for many of the exterior scenes in Downton Abbey. Our guide Sally walked us around the village to many of the locations, including the hospital (library in real life), Mrs. Crowley's house, the pub, the post office, and the church where Mary and Matthew get married.





St. Mary the Virgin, Bampton

Once we left Bampton, we came back to Oxford for the evening. Mom and I soon set out again and walked over to Blackwell's, a wonderful bookstore located close to our hotel. We both enjoyed looking around, and I purchased two Jane Austen books as well as a Pride and Prejudice print. After visiting a few other shops, we ate at an old pub that now served Thai food. We were thrilled to discover that Pad Thai and fried rice taste delicious on both sides of the pond.

*Unfortunately, our day got off to a stinky start when a dog left us a "welcome to England" present on the bus. We had to wait until arriving at Blenheim Palace to take care of it, but even once it was removed, we kept smelling it whenever we passed certain members of our group.