The best place ever – our two days as royalty in Traquair, Scotland.

We just left the coolest place on earth, at least if you like old Scottish estates, history, and stuff like that.

Traquair House in Southern Scotland - maybe my favorite stay of the trip.

Traquair House in Southern Scotland – maybe my favorite stay of the trip.

I’m referring to a little piece of history in the south of Scotland called Traquair House. The oldest part of the house was built in 1107 as a hunting lodge for the kings and queens of Scotland, and it’s considered the oldest inhabited house in Scotland, whatever that means. Over the years, the house was expanded by a long line of family members who have continuously occupied it since 1491. Think about it – this house has been occupied by the same family since the year before Columbus set sail for the New World. The family includes its current resident, the 21st Laird of Traquair, Lady Catherine Maxwell, who, on our first night there, led a tour through the place with the ease and grace of a darned good docent.

The fact is that the Maxwells and the Stuarts (who were on the other side of the family tree) probably never had the kind of money that the really really rich people in these parts had, so this is no Versailles. Instead, it’s just an amazingly cool old house that still has its original furnishings, and in addition to being open for tours and running a cute little gift shop, they rent out three rooms to the public. Good for us.

Oh, and they have a brewery that has been making beer, on and off, for hundreds of years, fermenting the stuff in three hundred year old oak barrels from four hundred year old recipes that they found in the house’s archives. And this is not the nun’s tinkle that passes for beer in most of the world – this is some serious dark, malty, Scottish ale that weighs in at 7 or 8 percent alcohol. This stuff will warm you so you don’t have to wear leggings with your kilt.

Oh, and to ensure that Traquair House is the single greatest accommodation on the planet, it has screamy fast wifi! What more could a person ask for?

There is nothing I didn’t like about Traquair. There is a hedge maze in the back. A maze! On our first night, Janine and I decided to give it a go. Within minutes, we were hopelessly lost inside the quarter mile of dead ends when it started raining. Oops. Yet somehow that added to the ambiance, although we were pleased that it soon stopped raining.

The view from our window.

The view from our window.

Our room was big and lovely. Like many old estates, the house has been added on to over the years, and our room is relatively modern, having been completed by 1599. It has a very cool canopy bed and it looks out over the maze at the back of the house. The house itself is open for tours during the day (although our room has a very impressive-looking “private” sign on the door) but when the people go away it’s just us and nine hundred years of history to keep us company.

Our room, which becomes the family's master bedroom in the winter.

Our room, which becomes the family’s master bedroom in the winter.

When we arrived they handed us our keys. Unlike, say, the Marriott, which gives you a cruddy plastic key card, at Traquair you are presented with three ancient skeleton keys. One opened the sitting room in the “new” wing, which was completed in 1695. Another opened our room, and the largest key opened the massive ancient front door to the castle itself. Stay at Traquair and they give you the keys to the castle.

The keys to the castle. No kidding.

The keys to the castle. No kidding.

There are two other guest rooms at Traquair, but there were no other guests while we were there, so we had the sitting room to ourselves. We were encouraged to light a fire and avail ourselves of the honor bar, which was well stocked with a variety of bottles, including plenty of the house beer. We were free to roam the house alone in the morning before it was opened to the public, and we tried out the hidden door that was built to allow the house’s priest to escape when it was raided periodically (the family remained steadfastly Catholic even after Catholicism was outlawed). The servant bells that we’ve all seen on Downton Abbey are still in place, and they still work. We spent some time admiring the bedroom where Mary Queen of Scots slept with her newborn son. We marveled at the two libraries, with more than four thousand books that have never left the house, and were amazed that almost all the furnishings are original to the place.

The view across the house, just outside our door.

The view across the house, just outside our door.

The really impressive thing is that the house is still owned and operated by the family. Lady Catherine, her husband and their three children live here in the winter (she and her husband sleep in our room) but they decamp to another house on the property when the house is opened to guests in the spring. She’s an amazingly down to earth woman who seems to fully appreciate the responsibility of keeping a millennium-long legacy going. On our first night in the house, she led a tour for a group of travel agents, and graciously allowed us to crash the party.

With Lady Catherine Maxwell, the 21st Lady of Traquair.

With Lady Catherine Maxwell, the 21st Laird of Traquair.

The whole thing is fabulously unpretentious, and yet it is deeply, amazingly impressive all the same. If you have ever dreamed of staying at a castle or a manor house, do yourself a favor and come here.

Before we came to Traquair, we spent a few days in the Lake District in northern England.

We arrived at the Keswick Country House Hotel (pronounced Kezzik – nothing here is what it seems) in the area that inspired Wordsworth to write his early environmental poetry.

The Keswick Hotel is one of those big old hotels that you see in black and white movies. Its claim to fame was a visit by the queen sixty or seventy years ago. We had a nice big room with high ceilings and bay windows that looked onto a large green lawn covered with rabbits. In the morning it was a large green lawn covered with rabbit poop. There was an ornate dining room and a cozy pub, and while the place could use a bit of sprucing up, it was definitely a change of pace from all the airbnb apartments we’ve called home for most of our trip.

The Hotel Keswick, where the Queen once stayed!

The Keswick Country House Hotel, where the Queen once stayed!

When we were planning our visit, we saw that there was a theater company in Keswick called Theatre by the Lake, which seemed like a twofer – we’d see some theater and chances are we’d get to see a lake. Community theater can surprise you from time to time – we’ve seen some really wonderful theater  in some far flung places. But it can also be surprisingly, audaciously bad.This was such a time

We went to see a play called Lucky Sods, about a couple from Yorkshire who win the lottery. Well, apparently the only thing worse than winning the lottery is a play about winning the lottery. I felt for everyone associated with production, especially the nervous-looking woman dressed in stagehand black I spotted before the performance sitting in the front row with a script in her hand. It turns out that she was nervous for an extremely good reason. Every few minutes she had to throw a life preserver to a cast member, calling out a line to a drowning actor. I’ve seen a lot of theater over the years, but I’ve never seen a cast as a whole forget their lines as much as this lot did. It was so bad that at one point I wondered if the play was performed by a group being treated by a memory loss clinic, or whether it was some kind of innovative treatment for head trauma victims. Perhaps it was the audacious work of an early-onset Alzheimer’s program. If not, it was one of worst things we’ve ever seen, and that’s saying something. Lest you think I’m being hopelessly snobbish, throughout the play, a woman right behind Janine regularly interjected observations like, “It’s not well done!” to her significant other. At the intermission, Janine was desperate to leave, but with such a small theatre I worried that the certain exodus would demoralize the stalwart but sadly overmatched troupe. Well, I was wrong. Every last audience member returned for the second act, bless them. After all, they’re British and they’re polite. We would hardly have been missed. Janine was not pleased with me. She still wants those two hours of her life back. Like most goofy experiences I’ve had during the past nine months, I was secretly fine with it – at least it would be fun to write about.

Wandering the English countryside, complete with ghosts!

Ah, England! It’s quaint, cultured, and old. Oh, wait, I’m describing English tourists.

We have been touring what appears to be the English countryside’s greatest hits, and I am struck by two things. First, the tourists are overwhelmingly English folks exploring their own country, which I think is charming. Second, they are pretty old. I’m not kidding. Wherever we go, we are surrounded by exceedingly old English people. We have also seen surprisingly few foreign tourists. Part of this may be that we’re traveling when kids are in school, but it may just be that older English people like to get out and about. I will also say that they like to eat. I don’t recommend getting between a pensioner and the breakfast buffet. I’d rather get between a lion cub and its mother.

Our first stop in England was Stratford upon Avon. Who could resist wandering the same streets where Shakespeare created all that greatness? It’s not hard to do a walking Shakespeare tour. There are famous sites everywhere – here’s where Shakespeare was born, here’s his school, here’s his grave, here’s his house, here’s his father’s house. And of course, the Royal Shakespeare Company calls Stratford home. And so what did we see on William Shakespeare’s home court? Um, Death of a Salesman. Yep. In our defense, that’s what was playing. Also, Willy Loman was played by the great British actor, Sir Antony Sher, and he was brilliant. It’s getting a little embarrassing. We’ve seen the Sydney Theatre Company do Suddenly Last Summer, a production of Sweet Charity in Melbourne, and now RSC doing Salesman. They’ve all been very good (well, Sweet Charity was kind of meh), although the accents are all over the place, unsurprisingly.

The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon, where we saw that great Shakespeare play, Death of a Salesman.

The Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon, where we saw that great Shakespeare play, Death of a Salesman.

Next on our tour of Old England was an impossibly quaint little town in the Peak District, Derbyshire. We had a drink at the Cheshire Cheese Pub. How British is that? There is a cavern in town called the Peak Cavern, but it is known popularly as the Devil’s Arse, because of the noises the cave makes when water drains out of it. One of my enduring sadnesses is that they didn’t name a pub after it. How could you pass up a drink at the Devil’s Arse? Sadly, nobody has seen the great marketing potential. Castleton is about a thousand years old, and sits at the foot of, you guessed it, an old castle, which was worth a scamper. I don’t know why I’m so fascinated by castles, but there’s something about poking around the grounds of a Monty Python set that makes me smile. Another highlight was the town’s junk shop, in which the proprietor, whom we’ll refer to as eccentric, heard our American accents, at which point he switched on the theme from Titanic and plopped a captain’s hat on me and some other hat on Janine. Wasn’t the Titanic a British ship with a British captain? I half expected the guy to offer condolences that the American colonies lost the Revolutionary War. No matter, he was a spunky, funny guy, and I didn’t want to ruin his good time.

In the junk shop of the

In the junk shop of the “eccentric” fellow in Castleton. Unclear on the concept, I’m growling like a pirate.

We seem to have finally found the season we’ve been looking for. The English spring has sprung. Trees are leafing out all over and the fields of blooming rapeseed (from which canola oil, bio-diesel, and for all I know, car parts are made) look like a Van Gogh painting.

The loving couple next to the yellow field.

The loving couple next to the yellow field.

When we left Castleton, we pushed north toward the Dales, stopping at a slightly kooky pub/motel at the southern entrance to Yorkshire Dales national park. The rooms are a little goofy – the proprietors of the establishment have managed to take a two hundred year old stable and turn it into a seventies-style motel. The pub more or less has the old world charm one expects from a pub in the English countryside, but I confess that the room reminded me of a motor inn on the outskirts of Reno. What we didn’t see in that Nevadan motel was a ghost. Now, I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t believe in magic, or dragons, or the Loch Ness monster, or that we’ll ever have a functional Congress, and I have my doubts that the Mets will ever again make the playoffs, despite their great start this year (oh hallelujah for the internet, which allows me to watch baseball from afar!). Janine doesn’t believe in ghosts either, although that was put to the test yesterday. She woke up in the middle of the night and saw what appeared to be a small figure moving across the room. Without giving anything away, we asked the owner whether people ever reported seeing ghosts, and he said that customers often say they’ve seen the ghost of a young girl in the building our room was in. Of course, if I owned a pub I’d spread stories about ghosts too, so I take that with a medium sized hunk of salt, but still, the whole thing was freaky. British inns with ghosts! Now’s we’re cooking with gas!

The Craven Heifer, where Janine saw the ghost.

The Craven Heifer, where Janine saw the ghost.

The next day we made our way through the Yorkshire Dales – a collection of hills and river valleys in central England. Quite simply, it’s one of the most beautiful bits of countryside I’ve ever seen. There are miles upon miles of tidy little fields bordered by ancient stone walls and filled with bleating sheep. The sun was shining, the clouds were white and fluffy, and the cute little spring lambs romped in the fields with abandon. It was slow going, since the stone-lined roads regularly narrow to a single skinny lane, but the journey should be taken slowly anyway.

The Yorkshire Dales. I can't imagine how many people hours went into hauling all the stones out of the fields and making houses and fences out of them.

The Yorkshire Dales. I can’t imagine how many people hours went into hauling all the stones out of the fields and making houses and fences out of them.

It was just achingly beautiful, and if you like narrow country roads and sheep and old stone houses and such you just have to go. If you removed the modern vehicles, I suspect that this series of valleys look just as they did hundreds of years ago.

Ghosts, Devil’s bottoms, stone walls…England is fun!