Like I said in the previous post, our AirBNB in Nant-y-Derry was a DELIGHT, even though it didn’t have WiFi. Instead of scrolling on our phones in the evening, we watched whatever British game show was on the TV. It was perfect.
How adorable is the house key?
Like so many AirBNBs in the countryside, this building is a converted barn, and it’s updated and stunning inside.
Our original plan was to drive to Pembrokeshire (along the western coastline), but the weather was so wet and dreary that we didn’t want to trek too far. Instead, we drove south and stopped in Caerphilly, which was halfway between our place on the southern Brecon Beacons National Park and Cardiff, the largest city in Wales.
Caerphilly Castle was originally constructed in the 13th Century as part of the Anglo-Norman movement into Wales. It’s the second-largest castle after Windsor, but no one has lived here for many centuries. In its greatest time, Caerphilly Castle was a magnificent fortress with an impressive moat.
Taking pictures was tricky on account of the rain, but I muscled through.
We got back on the road and headed for the coast, this time landing on Dunraven Bay. It would’ve been lovely to see the coast during better weather, but nothing was going to keep us from the seaside. A beach is restorative no matter the climate.
It’s on this coastline in Southern Wales where we took my favorite photo of us of all time. We are the cutest.
For the second time, Chuck gave Karin a quick UK-driving lesson on the backroads. She did a stellar job!
Before heading back to our AirBNB, we made a quick stop in Cardiff just to poke around. We visited a few tourist shops and got a good view of Cardiff Castle before it closed. We were losing steam, and we were soaking wet, so going back home to our cozy converted barn sounded like a good idea.
We had one day left, so in the morning, we headed to Bath.
Our fifth day in England was the most special. Not only was it the day that our driver showed up to take us to Wales, but it was also the day that Karin and I were going to meet Philippa Gregory.
On Friday, Sept. 6, I saw an Instastory post from Sudeley Castle that gave my heart a jump. I screenshotted it and sent it to Karin immediately, texting, “RED ALERT.”
We learned that Philippa Gregory would be speaking at a small, intimate event at the castle on the very night we’d be driving westward. Our route needed to shift slightly, and we’d need to rearrange our AirBNB reservation, but this was doable. We could go. We could absolutely positively meet Philippa Gregory on our inaugural trip to England.
It’s important to know that Karin’s and my friendship is partly rooted in Philippa Gregory’s works of historical fiction. She and I swapped these books back and forth for years, both enjoying Gregory’s depictions of the Plantagenet and Tudor eras. To meet this specific writer together AND in England was a gift I couldn’t have planned if I’d tried.
But first, we needed to connect with our driver. He showed up at the hotel on Wednesday morning in need of a shower and spot of breakfast.
Before leaving Kingston, we stopped by a local artist’s house (who I follow on Instagram) because I wanted to buy a print that I’ve been eyeballing since May. Lisa Tolley is based in Thames Ditton, which is across the river and on the opposite side of Hampton Court from Kingston. It was a delight to meet her, to tell her how much I love her illustrations, and to purchase the piece I’ve been wanting for months.
Off we went to the Cotswolds, specifically to Winchcombe, to explore the area and make our way to Sudeley Castle. Our tickets for the event included a tour of the grounds and remains, though photos were limited because Sudeley is still a private home.
Sudeley Castle was Kateryn Parr’s final home and resting place, where she retreated after Henry VIII died and she was free from her duties as his sixth queen. She married her long-time love but only lived a few more years after they finally got together.
What I love so dearly about Kateryn Parr is that she was the first woman in England to publish her own writing in her own name.
Like so many others, the castle fell to ruin as England’s landscape changed. Though some structures date back to the 12th century and much of it was built in the 15th century, the property wasn’t restored until the 19th century.
Of course, the gardens were stunning.
We finished our tour of the castle and gardens and headed to town to find a place to eat. It was a weird time, something like 4 p.m., so we had a bit of trouble finding a pub that served food before 6 p.m. This is typical, particularly in small towns.
We had not eaten since our full breakfast that morning in Kingston, and we weren’t sure what food options we’d have after the Philippa Gregory event since we’d have to head to Stratford-Upon-Avon.
Thankfully, The White Hart Inn served midday soup and sandwiches, and that was better than nothing, so we popped in for “a bite and a pint.”
THEN – in the midst of perusing the menu, IN WALKS PHILIPPA GREGORY.
No lie. She and her assistant walked in casually, no doubt in search of a 4 p.m. meal. I smacked Chuck’s arm (because he was sitting next to me) and said under my breath, “Karin, she’s here. Philippa Gregory just walked in. She’s here. She’s here.”
THEN – she and her assistant joined us at the row of tables next to the windows, with only one empty table between us. How were we not supposed to stare at her? How were we supposed to just SIT THERE like Philippa Gregory wasn’t sitting in our same breathing space?
I froze, so it was Karin who began, “Hi, Ms. Gregory.” We exchanged very short pleasantries, something about how excited we were to hear her speak that evening. I can’t even remember. I was so uncool. It’s no wonder that minutes later THEY MOVED TABLES.
Now, logically, we know they moved tables so they could have a private conversation about whatever was going on in their private and professional worlds. They didn’t need a table of American fans hanging on their every word. Truthfully, I was relieved that they moved tables because I needed my body to RELAX and stop seizing.
Chuck was the sly one who snapped a photo of them while paying for our food at the bar.
Little did we know that wouldn’t be our last personal encounter with Philippa Gregory.
Starstruck, we went back to the castle and left Chuck in the car. (He was less interested in attending the event and more interested in taking a catnap to manage his jetlag.) We arrived in time to get a good place in line and score seats in the third row of the small room. I don’t know how many people attended, but it was somewhere in the 50-75 range.
Philippa Gregory spoke on “the women hidden from history” and how this has been a guiding force in her research and writing. She was just as inspirational as I hoped she’d be. I even felt brave enough to raise my hand and ask a question. After getting our books signed, that could’ve been the end of the evening and I would’ve been fine.
But it wasn’t the end.
As we sipped our wine and stalked Philippa Gregory from across the room, I kept trying to manage the urge to approach her again. I simply couldn’t do it. What would I say? What would she even want to say to me? Why am I so awkward in the moments when I really need not be?
Karin, my seize-the-moment friend, wasted no time waltzing across the room to ask the assistant if we could grab a photo with Ms. Gregory. With a smile on her face, she said we could.
You cannot tell by this photo but I am imploding. The wine must have helped.
It didn’t end there. We talked. We really talked. She started it by saying, “We meet again!” clearly remembering us from the pub a few hours prior. I told her I was a writer – a journalist with a dream of writing fiction – and she said, “I used to be a journalist too.” I swooned.
Bravely, I asked for her advice – what are the steps I should be taking? What should I be doing with my time? How exactly do I make a dream come true?
She said: Hone your craft. Don’t read bad books and don’t write bad books that you know will get published because they’ll still be bad books. Read good books that elevate your writing. Keep working hard. Write consistently. There’s no magic or secret. Don’t quit. KEEP GOING.
Then she said, “What’s your name? So I can keep an eye out for you?”
Shaking utterly and screaming on the inside, I said, “Jennie. It’s Jennie,” followed by silence.
To which Karin added, “…Treadway-Miller.”
I started to cry. Embarrassed, I worked hard to choke back the tears. My inner dialogue screamed GOOD GRIEF, WOMAN, GET AHOLD OF THYSELF. I barely had the presence of mind to speak.
We floated to the car, giggling and asking ourselves if the day really happened. On the way to Stratford-Upon-Avon, I typed everything she said to me in the Notes app on my phone, not that I even needed to. I remember it all. I couldn’t possibly forget a night like that.
We hopped the train again, this time westbound to the tiny town of Windsor. Last year we visited Windsor Castle a few days before Princess Eugenie’s wedding, so St. George’s Chapel was off limits for tourists.
BUT NOT THIS YEAR.
After watching the changing of the guard, Karin and I bolted for the chapel. I didn’t want to miss it a second time.
Taking photos inside the castle isn’t allowed either, but I snapped a ton of photos last year and posted them here. Windsor is the largest and oldest occupied castle in the world. Much like our luck at Buckingham, the Queen was not in residence when we were there. Maybe one day our schedules will align.
With time and weather on our side, we hopped the train back to Kingston and bolted for Hampton Court via a cab. This would be Karin’s only opportunity (on this trip) to see Henry VIII’s favorite place to hang. (Ha!) We got to Hampton Court with an hour to spare.
The sun started to set as we finished our quickie tour of Hampton Court. I couldn’t believe the perfect weather. In the weeks leading up to our trip I’d fretted about possible rain – and there was rain coming, trust me – but for all of our trekking and training, we’d not experienced a drop! Overwhelmed with gratitude, we walked back to Kingston instead of taking a cab. I wanted to soak in as much Kingston as I could.
We ended the day with wine and Sticky Toffee Pudding at the hotel. We’d managed four days in and around London on foot, on trains, and in cabs. Thankfully, our cross-country driver would be arriving the next morning to take us to Wales.
When Karin said she wanted to see Hever Castle, I didn’t mind one bit. Interestingly, it was on our third day of the trip last October when I went to Hever for the first time. Even though the castle itself was a repeat, Chuck and I didn’t explore the gardens. There was still something new to see there.
If you’re into gardening, you’ve come to the right place.
This was an area of the property I didn’t explore last time. At the end of this corridor of foliage is a large pond that connects to the River Eden.
Honestly, I didn’t even know The Loggia existed, so it was a brand new discovery.
We both enjoyed every second of sleep we got that first night. It is definitely the trade-off for flying overnight. You know the first day is a tough one. Pictures help you remember what you saw and what you did, but it’s really a crapshoot.
Day two was another hard trek, but honestly, I can’t imagine traveling any other way unless I’ve checked into an all-inclusive resort with nowhere else to go. I do NOT waste time.
After a full English breakfast, we took a quick peek at the Coronation Stone in Kingston, which is said to have been the very place where seven Anglo-Saxon kings have been crowned. (Having just taught Beowulf to my high school students, I was all warm and fuzzy about Anglo-Saxons and super happy to see the stone.)
We took a quick walk around the riverside so Karin could see more of Kingston in the daylight. I love this borough so dearly – I actually look at rental properties here in my spare time. It’s a dream, I know. But still.
Eventually, we took the train back to London, this time starting near Buckingham Palace so we could see if the Queen was home. (She wasn’t!) We stopped in the gift shop for a few keepsakes, which is where I took the cutest photo of Karin ever.
We took a long walk through Hyde Park to see the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fountain and Kensington Palace (all new stuff for me!). The walk was beautiful – perfect temperature and plenty of autumn leaves.
Our discovery of Diana memorials continued when we walked into Kensington Palace. Of course, we were hoping that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would be home, but alas, they weren’t.
Prince Charles and Princess Diana lived at Kensington Palace together when they were married, and Diana continued to live there after they divorced. I was so pleased to see she is still memorialized there.
The bulk of Kensington Palace features the life of Queen Victoria and her sweetheart (and cousin) Prince Albert, two monarchs I know little about other than the obvious bits and facts. I was thrilled by what I learned about this small, feisty queen. I’m eager to get my hands on a book about her.
We learned that Victoria has limited freedom as a young princess, and her relationship with her mother suffered for it.
After our tour of Kensington Palace, we took tea/coffee and cake on the patio to relish the moment.
We took our time strolling back through Hyde Park toward Buckingham Palace and the center of Westminster. Karin still wanted to see a few key spots, such as 10 Downing Street, Big Ben (which is still under construction), and Westminster Abbey.
We had no idea we’d arrived at Westminster Abbey at the perfect time. We knew the abbey was closed to visitors on Sunday, but there was a line forming outside the west door. A quick inquiry told us that anyone was allowed to attend the Sunday evening prayer service (with strict instructions that it is indeed a prayer service and not an opportunity to tour the church). We jumped at the opportunity to join others in prayer at Westminster. We just couldn’t believe it.
As per the rules, I took no photos inside but instead took the opportunity to be still in prayer, gratitude, and thanksgiving.
Since it was dark, we took a cab to Waterloo and grabbed the next train back to Kingston.
When Karin and I met in 2001, we became fast friends. This is actually the same origin story for all of my best friends. Upon meeting, I recognize them almost immediately as one of my people. It’s an instinct and a gift.
Karin and I worked together at a chiropractic clinic. We were both in a young season of figuring out our career paths, and this job provided a paycheck and time to think. It also afforded us time together every day to build and mold our friendship. Karin and I were together on 9/11, while Chuck and I walked through infertility, and when she and her then-boyfriend got engaged and married. We were in our mid-20s when life felt open-ended and full of possibilities.
Our jobs at the clinic ended as she went back to social work and I moved into communications, but we stayed best friends, and not just because our firstborns are five hours apart. Some of our biggest commonalities was a love of reading, all things Tudor, and the shared dream of exploring England together. It was an incredible fantasy considering all of the things that happened in our 30s: more kids, moving across the country, new jobs with no vacation time, divorce. You can’t just run off to England when you have Kindergartners and a new mortgage.
Fast-forward to now. Our lives are considerably different than they were ten years ago – emotionally, psychologically, financially. Suddenly, there is time to focus on ourselves without all the mom guilt. There’s a little more money in the bank, and we’ve learned a few things about how to travel smartly. When I went to England for the first time last year, almost every day provided a moment for me to tell Chuck, “Karin would love this.”
Speaking of, you should know that it was Chuck’s idea – this trip with Karin. He called me one evening in the summer while away on a work trip. We weren’t that far removed from our whirlwind vacation with the boys to France, Italy, and Monaco when he said, “What if we took Karin to England over fall break?”
The idea sounded far too lofty to grab and pull down. How could we even afford that? We were just overseas. Of course, I knew what he meant – we’d watch the fares and pounce when they dropped. We’d use all those hotel points he accrues so quickly. We’d split the AirBNB costs and car rental. We’d figure it out just like before.
When I pitched the idea to Karin, I don’t think she even hesitated in saying yes. I can’t even remember how the conversation went other than jumping right to dates that worked for both of us. Truth be told, I wasn’t entirely sure we could pull it off. Chuck was always confident, but I, the budget-keeper and family worrier, wasn’t.
Everything wove together near seamlessly, and by October 4, Karin and I were boarding a flight for Heathrow.
The overnight flight meant we’d arrive the morning of Saturday, October 5, with fingers crossed that we could check into our hotel in Kingston and hit the ground running.
The stars aligned and that’s exactly what we did. We wasted no time taking the train to London and walking straight for The Tower. (I didn’t take new photos there other than my photos of Karin, so y’all can enjoy what I took last year.) Though it wasn’t new to me, it was entirely new to Karin. I was so happy to see her wide eyes taking in all the things I knew she’d love.
What was new to me that Saturday was St. Paul’s Cathedral, an incredible place of worship that I was not prepared to see. The place was stunning.
Even the tilework was beautiful.
After touring St. Paul’s, we crossed the Millennium Bridge for a glimpse at The Globe, then grabbed our first dinner in London. Of course it was fish and chips! And cider!
Like zombies, we took the train back to Kingston-Upon-Thames, crawled into our hotel room, and crashed, deliriously happy.
I know, I know – we just went on vacation. BUT, Karin and I like to skip out of town on occasion (like, every couple of years) since we don’t live in the same city, and visiting each other’s houses means we can’t take a break from motherhood. Obviously going to the beach is our only option. I’m sure you understand.
We took a chance on Hotwire and fully prepared to stay at a local dump somewhere on the Emerald Coast. As long as the doors locked and there were no obvious bug infestations, we were going to be fine.
Tucked away in a gated community, the resort is a slew of condos in a desirable neighborhood of million-dollar homes. There are seven private beach access points, four swimming pools, and a lake in the middle of it all. This was the view from our patio:
On site is a little breakfast/lunch cafe and a separate restaurant for dinner, along with a spa, general store, and a couple of other businesses. We could not figure out why the place wasn’t swarming with tourists. The beaches weren’t even close to being crowded.
We finally asked around and discovered that people simply don’t know the place exists. Perhaps people think the gate means it’s private and inaccessible.
There were plenty of covered beach chairs for rent and wide open spaces for a clear view of the gulf. We took a walk towards the neighboring public beach and noticed a significant difference between how populated it was versus our area. I definitely preferred Carillon Beach!
The houses were outstanding. This one is a dream:
Swimming at night is my favorite.
We bought groceries for snacking and eating at the condo, but we did manage one meal out of our swimsuits. We enjoyed a delicious guilt-free, indulgent dinner at Amici 30a Italian.
Two and a half days is not nearly long enough, but I’ll take what I can get.
When you’ve known a set of kids since their birth, it’s a treat to take pictures of them as they grow. Karin and her children are special to me, to our whole family actually, not just because we’ve been through many life stages together, but because through all of it we’ve keep our promise to be there for one another no matter what.
They were overdue for updated family photos, so it was my birthday gift to Karin capture their lives at this very moment.
I learned yesterday that Karin’s mother passed away from a horrific car accident, another life taken swiftly, without warning. That makes five this week, which leaves many of us wandering around wondering what the hell just happened.
Jeremy was so tender when I told him that Ethan lost his grandmother. He said he wanted to attend the funeral with me “because I know what it’s like to lose a grandma.”
This morning we took Jeremy to an ENT at Children’s Hospital. He had his annual hearing test two weeks ago and the audiologist noticed a significant drop in the low frequencies. He referred us to an audiologist at Children’s for a second opinion, who we saw yesterday, and she confirmed the original results. They got us in to see the ENT first thing this morning and he scheduled Jeremy for a CT Scan to see if there is any structural damage behind the ear drum.
The reason why this drop is so troubling is because Jeremy’s hearing loss has been consistent since birth. It was detected at his newborn screening – a mild loss in his left ear, a moderate loss in his right. He’s been aided since he was ten months old. Now his right ear is labeled “moderate to severe,” and since there hasn’t been a change in his hearing in ten years, it’s definitely odd.
The doctor asked if Jeremy has sustained any head trauma and I told him the only thing I could think of was playing tackle football. The doctor nodded knowingly. He said that could be the culprit and Jeremy is to refrain from it until we know what’s going on.
Jeremy kept it together in the doctor’s office, but as soon as we were in the car, he was noticeably distraught. He said, “So he’s saying I can’t follow my dream?” His eyes were wet with tears. The boy loves playing football. If we get a red light on tackling, we won’t have a choice but to withdraw him.
When we go to Chattanooga, we squeeze in every moment we can with friends and family. It used to be our home, so not only is the city nostalgic, it’s also home to some of our favorite people.
This year Thanksgiving was with Chuck’s family. I admit that I was glad to be a guest and not a host, but only because November has been a tiresome month. Normally, I enjoy all the cooking and whatnot. This month, I enjoyed lounging.
Do you think these two are related?
So grateful Tami and Jeff could host this year. I can’t say that everyone was well-behaved (Chuck), but that’s how little brothers are (Chuck).
Before we stuffed our bellies with turkey and dressing, Chuck and I got up early to meet Karin and run the Turkey Trot 8K. It was Karin’s first road race and I was so happy to run alongside her.
On Black Friday, while everyone was blowing cash and fighting lines, we were with our Fred and Ethel Mertz.
We also drove down to Santa Land Tree Farm to get our Christmas trees. That’s right – plural. As in two trees. I’ll post pictures of that tomorrow.
Finally, for those who are wondering, I haven’t finished the novel but I’m in the 70,000-word range. I completed NaNoWriMo, which was really satisfying, but I have a little less than two weeks to finish the story and turn it in to my creative writing professor. So far, so good.
The whole process of getting tickets to a Mumford concert is complicated. You have to apply to be considered to purchase tickets. I’d been rejected twice already, so when I received an invitation to purchase tickets for the Atlanta concert, I had no pause. Two tickets. Immediately. Yes, please.
My original date for the evening, the hubs, had a work conflict, so Karin was my concert buddy for Atlanta. We met up with Corey and Gwen, along with another great couple, grabbed dinner, and found a spot on the grass in Centennial Olympic Park for The Full English tour.
Chuck and I have seen Mumford and Sons before in June 2011. At that time, they were just breaking big numbers and developing an enormous fan base at rapid speed. That meant our concert venue was a bit smaller and better controlled. Last night’s concert was outdoor and housed a thousand layers of sweaty people. Don’t get me wrong – it was spectacular. But, if you’re even a touch claustrophobic or are sensitive to cigarette smoke (or other smoke) or prefer not to have cheap beer spilled on your feet, then perhaps an outdoor concert isn’t for you.
But this was Mumford and Sons, so none of that mattered.
The most puzzling part of the night was this couple: They took the grassy spot in front of our blankets, right behind two garbage cans, laid down in a drunken stupor, and slept through the entire concert. Even after the final song concluded (The Cave), and we began to walk out of the park, they continued to lay there. For minute we wondered if we should wake them up and tell them to go home, but… we didn’t.
As I ignore “Cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater!” and other exclamations blowing my way from the boys’ bedrooms, I offer another batch of photos from Charleston.
Just in case I didn’t know I was home from vacation, the dog made sure to vomit his dinner on the living room carpet last night and chew up one of Jeremy’s Star Wars cups. He’s sweet to welcome me home so appropriately.
Soon after we moved back to East Tennessee from Texas my best friend, Karin, and I ran off to Isle of Palms for a much-needed break from reality. She was newly single again and I had spent two years living away from her while she muddled through a big life change. The trip was going to be only three days (when three weeks would’ve been better), but we were going to enjoy every second of it. However, about 12 hours into the trip, we were rudely interrupted by human forces beyond our control and that sent the trip into a tailspin of emotions. I’ll save you the details but instead say that while Charleston and Isle of Palms are beautiful, the trip was overshadowed by a dark cloud.
So, we’re going to give it another try.
Rarely am I away from my children. My entire life is set up around them, which is intentional and what I have chosen, but sometimes I really, really need to go to a restaurant and order only for myself. I need to drive somewhere in a car and not answer questions from someone in the back seat. I need to go to sleep and wake up with no one else’s schedule in mind but my own. On the surface, it sounds very self-centered, but every mother knows that there comes a moment when you take your children by the hand, look into their sweet innocent eyes, and say, “I love you dearly, but I really need to miss you for a minute.”
Chuck and I are great tag-team parents, affording one another time here, or time there. But on the whole, the day-to-day care-taking sits on my shoulders, and that is particularly true for Karin and her children. So, with that in mind, we are running away for a few days in an attempt to recharge our brains and recapture what we tried to accomplish two years ago.
For what it’s worth, I do not worry one bit about Chuck’s ability to care for the boys while I’m gone.
Since moving back to Tennessee in March, we’ve been waiting and planning for a weekend when my best friend Karin and her kiddos could come for a visit.
Sidebar: Karin and I met in 2001 when we worked together at a doctor’s office. She became pregnant with her first child in 2003 at the same time when I was still grieving over our infertility. However, God saw fit to turn it all around with the sweetest gift of a birth mother due at the same time as my best friend. Divine timing prevailed – Karin gave birth to Ethan around 1 a.m. on September 9, just five hours after we welcomed Jeremy into the world on September 8 at 8 p.m. Our boys were buddies from the start – we made sure of it – and despite their two-year, Tennessee-Texas separation, they picked up right where they left off. (Jackson and Sidney are nine months apart and share a sweet friendship. Essentially, she’s the boss of him and he’s too laid back to care. It’s marriage material.)
They arrived Friday night and the activity was practically non-stop. The Miller Family reunion was Saturday afternoon so we brought along our friends, who the Millers welcomed with affection. The kids swam for nearly four hours in cousin Sharon’s pool (thank you!) and we all enjoyed some of the best home cooking we’ve ever had (amen!).
On Sunday we ran off to the mountains so we could throw the kids in the river.
These are the things that make childhood memories so wonderful.
It’s been a very long time since I’ve seen the ocean, and in the past that didn’t bother me much. (We’ve never been beach people.) However, after two years of living in the center of the country, far removed from large bodies of water, I became fixated on seeing the ocean AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. (And eating fresh seafood. Shrimp and Grits, anyone?) Despite our current proximity to lakes and rivers, I’m still itching to dip my feet in the big blue.
Throw in my best friend and a sweet deal on a hotel room, and I’ve got a quick trip to the Isle of Palms on the calendar. Ocean, you and I will finally be together. See you soon – xoxo