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Southeast England

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Dover, Kent

No part of England, outside of London, elicits my fondness more than the southeast. I am referring here to the counties of Surrey, Kent, and East/West Sussex. "Why," you may ask? Let me explain. For me the SE was my escape route from London into a hilly, rural, pastoral land of farms, narrow country roads, villages, small towns, country gardens, castles, and white cliffs. If only words could express the "attachment" that I have developed for this portion of God's England!

For the first two years that I was over there I had a Honda motorcycle, and for me it was a real delight to go for a ride in the country, like I used to do when I was younger, in Illinois and Tennessee. I just wanted to get out of the big city of London as fast as I could and hit the open road with a green and varied landscape around me. The simplest and quickest way to do this was to go straight south, weaving through miles of congested suburbia, and then, patiently, gradually, you would notice that the city was gone, behind you. You were in an almost foreign land where everything looked pleasantly appealing. That is not to say that London was overbearing, or unpleasant, just that the contrast was amazing. I never tired of exploring this relatively small corner of England, shaped sort of like an elbow, on motorcycle, by car, or train.

The hub of my SE travels was the town of Westerham, on the western edge of Kent, on the main east-west road across the southeast. This was just below the North Downs hills, which was a natural starting point for exploring, and I went there time-and-time-again. Not far away was Chartwell, the estate where Winston Churchill lived in retirement. One of my favorite footpaths went over a hill that overlooked the whole of Chartwell. It was a beautiful area of woods and rolling hills. I once took a van load of kids from London to this scenic spot for a picnic, on a lovely sunny day. Everything was going well, but when time came to leave I had an unexpected mishap--the single van key that I had broke in the door lock. Oh, no! I had to think fast and figure out what to do, for we were stranded miles outside of London. The only other key to the van was at a church member's flat in SE London. Fortunately, I was a member of the RAC (Royal Automobile Club) at the time, so I hiked--ran actually--quite some distance to a phone booth in a tiny village called Crockham Hill, and phoned the RAC. Within an hour, they sent a rescue van out to us--a tool van, not a passenger van. The RAC man could not unlock our van door even if he wanted to, and he couldn't start the van without the key, so the only thing he could do was take me to SE London to get the spare key. This he did, cordially enough, and he and I returned with the spare key in a little over two hours. The kids, and the two adults that I left in charge, were safe and sound, and had rather enjoyed the space of time playing and running around during my absence. We then drove back to London with no further problems. That was certainly not the first nor the last time I experienced difficulties with vehicles whilst traveling outside of London, but this was the largest group that I was ever stranded with. I, for one, will never cease to be amazed at the density of Great Britain, and how difficult it can be to get around.

From Westerham, one could easily go south to towns on the coast like, Hastings, Eastbourne, or Brighton (I could easily write a page just about Brighton). I've been to those towns many times, and to numerous places in-between, such as Hever, Penhurst, Tonbridge, Scotney Castle, Bodiam Castle, Battle, Beachy Head, and Rye (a beautifully quaint town; went to the former home of Henry James). Once, when I was at Battle--where the battle of 1066 took place--I took refuge in my car because it was raining heavily. I wanted to visit the battlefield, but I wasn't going to do it in the rain. I scanned the dial on my car radio, listened to a couple of French stations, and contemplated the fact that France was so amazingly close! The realization that a whole different culture was just across the English channel came as quite an epiphany to me on that rain-swept day. I never did take my car across the channel, but I have been to France by train or bus several times, and I love it there.

I've also been to Winchester a few times, and have seen a number of its sights, such as its magnificent cathedral, and King Arthur's Round Table. A little further beyond, I have been to Portsmouth once, where I almost took a ferry across to the Isle of Wight, but since it was seriously looking like it might rain, and I was on my motorcycle at the time, I had to abandon the idea. What a pity I never made it back! But that's the way it is with England--there's just too many enticing places to visit, and tooo little time! I've stopped to admire many a timeless village dotting the broad and fertile Weald, not to mention country churches, cemeteries, unusual oast houses, secluded valleys and ponds.

If I give you the impression that all of England is a scenic park fit for gentle strolling and admiring, then that would be a bit of an exaggeration, but England has a plenitude of beautiful areas to walk! Much of England is a well-cultivated garden, but not many Americans know that Britain has public footpaths just about everywhere in the country, and the southeast is a good example. I've walked along many a quiet, scenic footpath, fully absorbed in the beauty of the trees, plants, birds, sheep, interesting man-made follies, and gates. Picnicking can be an excellent encounter with the natural surroundings and ought to be obligatory for everyone who admires nature. And in England you don't have nearly as many annoying insects as we do in America.

Going more easterly, I always found the town of Rochester to be inviting. This historic town, also the home of Charles Dickens and one of the tallest Norman Castles, has plenty of authenticity to charm the skeptical tourist. I've lost count of the times I've been there. Not far away is the remote Isle of Sheppy, which can be reached by bridge. I went there once on my motorcycle and it had a "cut-off from the mainland" kind of aura. Further down is Maidstone, where the enchanting Leeds Castle spans two islands inside of a round lake, and is a major attraction. I've been there three times, and I believe it is one of the most romantic of the English castles. Further east, I've been to the city of Canterbury a few times, which is filled with sights, and is best known for Chaucer's Tales and a very large cathedral that is the home of the Bishop of Canterbury--see where Thomas `a Becket (1118-1170) was killed for upsetting Henry II. I've been to Broadstairs, on the eastern coast of Kent, and looked at the house (sometimes called the "Bleak House") where Dickens spent several long stays and wrote a couple of his novels, including American Notes, a travelogue and critique about America which he wrote after his first visit to America in 1842 (a book that I consider to be utterly fascinating).

And no ramble in these parts would be complete without a visit to Dover. Situated at the narrowest point between England and France, Dover's notoriety is well deserved. I've been to the famous Norman Dover Castle on the cliffs, to the Saxon church nearby and to the Roman lighthouse, certainly one of the oldest of its kind. Dover is the first sight that many people see of England as they ferry across the channel from Calais. I have crossed back-and-forth a few times myself, and the white cliffs are a stirring reminder of what Shakespeare wrote:

"This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war...
this little world, This precious stone set in the
silver sea..."

England and Great Britain begin in the Southeast and go North and West like a ninety-degree angle, and contain enough wonders to fill a continent!

Canterbury Cathedral
Leeds Castle
The Royal Pavilion, Brighton
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