I Should Be a Duchess…

10 May, 2013

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The Alexanders need to start their own bakery. John and Connie’s bread is too die for! They showed me their collection of baking books this morning and I’ve decided that is time for me to pull back out my Julia Child’s cookbook and start baking some amazing European bread. They have experimented with all sorts of gourmet recipes from baked goods, to soups, to korean dishes, and I am willing to bet that it was all absolutely delicious. Living in Europe, the heart of exquisite cuisine, has worn off on them a bit because…um yeah, best bread hands down.

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I just can’t stop bragging about how amazing the Alexanders are because I have never met a family so kindhearted and sweet as they are. This morning they took me shopping for a few supplies I needed and helped me exchange some American dollars over to Euros, the currency I will need for the majority of countries I will be visiting over the next several weeks.

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After running our few little errands we set off on another adventure exploring Northern England, and let me say, today was one of the most touching experiences of my life. I was able to visit the oldest ruins that still exist in my family lines. Over 1200 years of history were at my fingertips. I have never felt so inspired.

The castle was built out of wood in 1066 by Lord Hylton, but was rebuilt in stone in the 14th century by Sir William Hilton. part of that stone reconstruction still stands today as ruins in the city of Sunderland, Tyne and Wear about 20 or so miles south of New Castle in Northern England. The Hylton name later was changed to Hilton, the lineage from which my mother and grandfather descend from. The castle was owned by the Hilton family until 1746 when the last Baron died and the castle as abandoned for many years until a family successor reclaimed the property. Today it is owned by English Heritage, a government body who protects historical England. It’s unfortunate that they haven’t yet realized that I am indeed a descendent of Lord Hylton and allow me to reclaim the castle to our family line…I mean look, I would make a great Duchess!

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Today I was able to visit the castle as the first one in my family to do so. The only remains that still exist are that of the gatehouse and a room on the left side of the castle that looks much like a chapel. The gatehouse was the front entry of a castle that would have been attached to a walkway or bridge in which people entering the castle would have to pass through to reach it’s interior. The castle sits on a spacious plot of land and in it’s prime probably contained much of the land within its city walls as towers, rooms, courtyards, and living corridors. It is absolutely amazing to be able to touch something that has so much history within it’s walls. The inside of the castle was locked due to its weak internal structure which poses significant danger to visitors. One day I hope to arrange a special viewings of it’s inner rooms…they should do that for family, right?!

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A portion of the ruins that still remain lie to the left of the gatehouse. From the look of the room, it appears as if it was a the castle chapel. Family crests and Coat of Arms are carved all throughout the stone in the chapel as well as all throughout the exterior of the gatehouse. My Grandma and Grandpa Hilton have in their possession a book of the Hilton/Hylton lineage that talks about the beginning of The Lord Hyltons and their construction of the Castle. It explains the meaning of many of the crests and coat of arms that were carved into the castle, the ones that still exist today on its walls. I have had access to this book several times for various research projects, but now that I have physically been to the place where much of the book’s contents take place, its words and drawings now have a dear place in my heart.

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The Alexander family was so incredible to take me to the Hylton Castle and endure while I took a million photos and explored every in every nook and cranny that I could. They informed me that they have visited at least 50 castles in England and that it is only a fraction of the ones that are available to visit. That means there are A LOT of castles in England, and each has a different story and history behind it. Afterward Exploring the Hylton Castle we headed North to Alnwick Castle, a huge castle just North of NewCastle, only a couple hours south of the border of England and Scotland.

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This is one of the largest castles in North England that is still inhabited. The Duke and Duchess of Northumbria and their four children live there, known as the Percy family. The Duke is the position just below that of the King and Queen, so the Percys have significant influence in the country of England. Think, Did Mary Ever Visit Brighton Beach to remember the order of stature in England after the King and King (Duke, Marquis, Earl, Viscount, Baron, Baronet). If Queen Elizabeth is ever away from her home in England, the Duchess Percy would be the lady to entertain her guests. We were able to walk through the personal living corridors of the Percy family known as the State Rooms, which are available to public viewing when the family is not home. They were stunning! Designed after Italian Renaissance art and architecture, I felt like I was already in Italy (which I will be in 2 days!).

It is funny as we visit places and people find out we are American, they tell us quite interesting facts about how America ties into the stories they are telling. For instance, the Percy’s line of nobles was not a simple one and a man named James was eventually born as an illegitimate son of one of the Percy greats. Upset that he would be unable to claim the Duke title, he changed his last name to Smithson and moved to mainland Europe where he immersed himself in arts and sciences. Upon his death bed he declared his inheritance to be given to an institution with the purpose in educating in the sciences. John Quincy Adams, president of the United States at this time, saw this as an opportunity to seize a great sum of money and build a renowned science facility in the states. This facility is known today as the Smithsonian Institute or the Smithsonian Museums that are located in Washington DC. I have been there and they are absolutely amazing! Thank you Britain!

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The Alnwick Castle is known as the Harry Potter Castle, as Hogwarts was patterned after it and many scenes in the Harry Potter movie series were filmed on it’s grounds. For instance, the broom lessons in the first movie, many Whomping Willow scenes-including the one where the Weasly’s car gets beat up, and the many Hogwarts entrance scenes as the Lion Arch or gateway to the castle served as the entrance to Hogwarts in all the movies. It was neat to walk in all these places and unconsciously get flashbacks to scenes from the movies that took place there. As an avid Harry Potter fan, this was one of my favorite parts about exploring the castle…and I know it would of been my 9 year sister Talia’s favorite too.

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The location of the Whomping Willow Scene.

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Me trying to fly in the same spot that Harry Potter learned to fly, but I don’t have a Nimbus 2000 broomstick like he did…

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Lions Gate Alnwick…AKA Hogwarts front entrance.

We also took a ghost tour of the Dungeons and got a little scared and spooked…I mean a lot scared and spooked! I cannot imagine being locked in those cold, dark, stinky rooms underneath the castle, never to see the sun or anyone for months and years on end… No Thanks!

You may have heard about the “mini” Great Wall of China that runs 73 miles from the North Sea to the Irish Sea across England about 100 miles south of Scotland. This wall is known as Hadrian’s wall- built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 125 AD separating the Romans from their notorious neighbors in the north-Scottish Picts. While most of the wall has been destroyed, their are several portions that still stand across the English country. We were able to visit the must recently discovered ruins that lie in NewCastle, England. None of the wall actually stands here, but you can see the layout of numerous buildings and towers that accompanied the wall near the river Tyne. The history of these ruins is absolutely fascinating, incredible work went into building such a massive wall across across England–not quite as much work as the Great Wall of China obviously, but still impressive.

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Hadrian’s Wall, Newcastle England

When I look back at all we did today, I can’t believe how much we fit into one short day! On our way home from a beautiful day of castle hopping we spotted a “Roman-like” building sitting randomly on the top of a hill right outside of Durham. We stopped to explore it for a bit and discovered that it was a structure built by William Pratt in 1844 designed after the Theseum, a Greek Temple in Athens. It was fun to run up the short little dirt and wood staircase to the top, explore the Greek architecture and view the city from above. When you give yourself time to explore and seize opportunities that may not be on your schedule you never know what you will find–maybe even a surprising Roman Temple.

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Penshaw Temple

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Ms. Hercules.

I am starting to discover just how much influence the Romans have had on the entire world. Before coming to England I had no idea that there would be so much Roman history still visible on it’s landscape. As I try to decipher why the Romans were so powerful and influential and how they still make an incredible impact on the world, I have discovered that it is because they took risks and used their knowledge and creativity to try new things. They were not afraid to do the impossible. We learn from history that it is those who dream “out-of-the-box” that really make a difference in the world. Each of the castles that I have visited and the architecture that I have seen contain elements that are apparent nowhere else in the world. Because of their uniqueness and creativity, they have become symbols of prestigious design and offer historical importance to much of the world.

Although I am still waiting to get the “traditional” pub experience, tonight I was able to experience something that I don’t think can be topped. Two words, Pizza Express. I know I am not in Italy yet, but I am anxious to see if any of their restaurants can beat this authentic Italian restaurant we ate at in Durham England. There pizza was perfect. Thin crispy crust, minimal sauce and cheese, purposefully placed toppings, and plentiful taste and aroma. Absolutely the best pizza I have ever had, and healthy pizza at that. England has it nailed when it comes to food, and from what I have heard the rest of Europe follows suit pretty well.

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Pizza Express, Rocket pizza (Thin crust pizza with a hole in the middle that contains a delicious salad).

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Downtown Durham, England.

As I take in everything I possibly can from the beautiful country of England, I can’t help but notice even more differences between here and the states. Small differences such as the absurd smelling cow manure and the use of stone fences and hedges in pastoral land instead of wire fencing. There is no pop, only “soda”, and if you ask for chips they will give you fries, so if you want actual chips you best ask for crisps. There are few stop signs and the yield signs read “give way”. Stoplights do not hang over the road, but instead they stand on posts on the side of the road. The date is always written day-month-year instead of month-day-year, and there are these weird dispensers in every bathroom selling little capsules called Fuzzy Brushes. I don’t know if I really want to know what those are… Last but not least and as I was reinformed tonight at Pizza Express, if you ask for water they will inquire if you want it still or sparkling. If you want normal water, ask for still…but be prepared to pay a small fortune for it, as most European restaurants don’t give out tap water. You will receive the fanciest bottled water you have ever seen, trust me…

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Stoplights located on the roadside posts.

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Exquisite European bottled water…

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