Those Brits and Their Gardens and At Long Last…The Nautically Themed Hotel

May 24th, 2010

We stayed in five different places during our trip to Europe last summer.  Almost all of them were chosen because they were the cheapest places I could find that could accommodate my family of six.  We spent our first four days in a suburb outside of London with Pete and Ilona who are dear old friends of Mike and Liz who are dear old friends of ours.  Several years ago, Mike and Liz brought Pete and Ilona to our house for an overnight visit.  We cooked out, swam in the pond, drank wine, and forced our English guests to name the fifty states (at which they were very good) and then a few years later, we showed up at Pete and Ilona’s house and moved in with them for four entire days.  Talk about an awesome exchange rate!  

It was during this stay that I began to learn something rather strange about the British.  They are unusually passionate about their gardens.  Hey! I work at a garden center. I am a gardener. And there is probably nothing that I enjoy more than time spent in a beautiful garden. But these British people – they take it to a whole new level.

Upon arrival at every single British home I visited, we were immediately escorted into the garden.  What Americans call a backyard – the Brits call a ‘garden’ and it is nothing like the American version of an open grassy stretch littered with large plastic toys, a swing set, a dilapidated dog house and an abandoned shrubbery.  A British garden is an actual garden. They are lovely, fragrant rooms with nooks and crannies and well worn furniture.  These garden rooms were absolutely the most beloved part of their homes.  In fact, from my experience – the Brits really seem to view their houses as long tiresome hallways that you must walk through (and hastily) to reach the garden.  The Brits sort of push you to the garden.  They hustle you out back.  ”Come out to the garden.” they say as they jog you past the living room, the dining room and the kitchen.  If you are a house junkie like me, this can be somewhat painful.  I longed to linger in each of the rooms and ask nosy questions about the history of the house.  I wanted to absorb the bones, the colors, the flooring, the length of the windows, the trim, the fixtures, the wood tones, but the Brits we visited didn’t seem care about their houses.  They didn’t point out the additions, the remodels, the interesting features the way that Americans do.  They didn’t talk house.  They talked garden.   Or actually they talked in the garden and they want you out there with them – pronto!  

“Come to the garden!”  they call as they rapidly disappear around a corner.  

You race along behind them trying to suck the fleeting scenes of the various rooms in through your pores. Odds are – these are the only views you will ever get of the house.

This whole garden thing had a slight tinge of desperation to it.  We visited the UK in August which is the warmest month in the UK, but also one of the wettest months. It rained off and on throughout each day while we were there. The second that the sun peeked from behind the clouds our host Pete would start hollering to his wife Ilona.

“Ilona!  Come out!  Come out to the garden!.”  

Sensing Pete’s acute need for people to populate the garden, we would shuffle out and obediently sit down.  The boys would start up a game of cricket with Pete and Ilona’s son Louis and then Pete would yell again.

“Ilona!  Ilona!  Come out to the garden Ilona!”  

From somewhere in the depths of the house we would hear Ilona call back that she would be there in a second, but Pete needed her out there now.  

“Ilona!  The sun is OUT! Come to the garden! ”

Ilona would finally appear breathless at the back door. She had rushed through whatever task had held her up to get out the garden before the sun disappeared, but it was too late.  The sun was gone.  A light, chilly rain had started to fall.  The sky turned silver and then steely gray. The wind picked up a little – but we did not move.  We stayed in the garden.  I pulled on a sweater and hunched down against the cold, refreshing my tea cup with a second layer of heat.  If I learned one thing about the British while visiting the UK other than that they love their gardens, it is that a little penetrating, teeth crunching cold does not seem to bother them.

At all.

In fact, I spent one very cold, miserable day at the seaside with these British people and they were completely unperturbed by it.  While an icy wind blew us sideways and the sun played a gruelling game of tag all day long refusing to shine for more than three seconds at a time, the Brits dove into the freezing surf, stopping occasionally to build a castle in the cold wet sand or dry off in the ice tipped gale.

We hunkered down behind a windbreak for a picnic lunch.  I wrapped myself in layers of damp beach towels to try and keep my teeth from chattering.  Everyone except for me seemed utterly impervious to the misery of the situation.  I can only imagine what these people would be like on a day when the weather was good!

We visited four private residences while we were in England, and at each one we were either pushed through the house and into the garden within ninety seconds of our arrival or the house was skirted entirely and we were taken directly into the garden. All of the British homes we visited were fabulously old and filled with character and charm.  I could have lingered.  I could have aimlessly wandered. I could have stepped to the center of each room and slowly rotated for hours admiring the patina of these great old homes, but instead like a stubborn cow through a cattle chute I was forced into the garden. I balked.  I hesitated.  I tried to distract my host with a finger pointed to the mantle in the distance, or a detail on the old walnut banister, but they only gripped my hand and yanked me out to the danged garden!  At which point I settled in and admired the gorgeous, yet comfortable surroundings of these outdoor rooms… all the while plotting my excuse to get a glance inside the home.  

Liz’s sister’s garden.

Liz’s mum’s garden



Our next destination was Paris.  


We took two tiny rooms at a hotel just a few blocks from Notre Dame.  


You could see the cathedral from the window of our room.  

(Look for the tall skinny spire in the middle of the photo.)

There was no air conditioning.  

We slept with the windows open and the noise of the city lulled us to sleep.  

Thankfully – Parisians are not early risers.  

The streets outside our rooms did not really start to ‘wake up’ until we had already hit the streets looking for a croissant and a cappuccino.


Our next stop was Bath.  We stayed in an American chain hotel in Bath – sorry, but it was cheap.  And it was also wonderful because it felt like home!  It was all so big and American! The elevators were huge!   Our entire family was able to fit inside and our suitcases too!  You did not have to fold your shoulders into your clavicle to fit down the hallway!  I could actually brush my teeth with my elbow fully extended!  Paris was clearly not designed with large lumbering Americans in mind, but English hotels were another story.  There was a sign outside that said “We Welcome Large Lumbering Americans!”  The staff spoke English.  THE STAFF SPOKE ENGLISH!  Sorry for this little American moment – but that whole visiting a foreign country thing where everyone speaks a different language?  That is just plain HARD!  Not that I wouldn’t go back to Paris TOMORROW if someone handed me a ticket -but it was nice to get back to a country that shares the same language as you do.  It was a huge relief!  Don’t worry!  There were still plenty of cultural differences and indecipherable words and phrases to make everyone feel awkward and alone, but at least when I ordered a beer in England, they just brought me a pint and no one got all hacked off about it, feigning ignorance just to make me feel crappy.

To read about how I lurched in grief around Bath – you can click here.  

To read about my freakish attempts at trying to speak French click here.  


Upon leaving Bath we took a circuitous trip through the countryside.

We visited Castle Combe, rumored to be the most picturesque village in England


And then we stopped at Stonehenge


Which was closed.

And finally we made our way to The Nautically Themed Hotel.


Where the following signs instructed us.



This was the exterior of the nautically themed hotel.  It was set on extensive  manicured grounds.  We drove up a long curving driveway to reach it.  From the outside there was really nothing ‘nautical’about it.  In fact!  It seemed downright charming!  And it was a bargain too!  We parked the car and approached the front door wondering if we were going to be met by a butler with a silver tea tray and that’s when I saw the sailboat in the window.  

But it was just a sailboat!  


Just a decorative little sailboat!



An old English manor SHOULD have a sailboat in the window!  

There’s nothing wrong with that!



As we entered –  to our right was one perfectly faded, somewhat dated,  yet very cozy lounge.




And to the left, an equally, slightly worn, but appealing bar.

It reminded me of basement rec rooms in the seventies.

And who doesn’t like an old rec room?




It was what was right in front of us that was the most troubling…





What was just a sailboat in the window.

Just a little sailboat!

Was now the dismembered body of a huge sailboat caustically hacked to pieces and then maniacally reassembled for use as a central staircase!




This is the pleasant exterior.


And these are the decaying yacht remains on the interior!



The upper landing…

All the doors had a little portal in them…

You know…

So you could look out and see the ocean.




A spaceship had landed in the backyard.



It was connected via a breathing tube in order to sustain the alien life forms.

The old brick and timber exterior was ‘punched up’ with these very exciting metal and brick staircases that just seemed to scream., “I am so NOW!”

I am so FREAKIN’ NOW!!!


And yet it was delicately softened with a lovely hydrangea to the side.


This was one nautically themed hotel that did not disappoint.
If you want to add it to your English tour – email me and I will send you the details.
It was a bargain!
And actually the lovely and extensive grounds would be ideal for a large function of any sort.
The design elements would give everyone plenty to talk about.

It would also make an excellent setting…


Murder at the Nautically Themed Hotel!

It has a certain ring to it doesn’t it!?!




  • Action Squirrel:

    That is the ugliest hotel I have ever heard of.

  • I was just reading an article this morning about a study of modern US families. What hit me the most, though not the emphasis of the study by any means, was the characterization of our (American’s) seeming loathing of our yards.

    “Outside the homes, the yards were open and green — but “no one was out there,” said Jeanne E. Arnold, a U.C.L.A. archaeologist who worked on the study. One family had a 17,000-square-foot yard, with a pool and a trampoline, and not even the children ventured out there during the study. ”

    I was wondering if the finding was a result of a sample design flaw (i.e. only people who hate the outdoors would want to be filmed 24/7), or if my family is just not normal because we love to be outside more than we like to be inside.

    It was a shock to see you addressing what’s been on my mind all morning. I sure do love your blog!

  • D’oh!
    Forgot to include the link.

    (’cause links are–really good)
    (read that in the Trale Lewous voice, please)

  • Patricia:

    So funny ! Your writing is excellent and hilarious ! Love hearing about the trip……

  • It’s funny how some parts of the hotel are gorgeous and others are ghastly. I think I’ll stick to Ireland and Scotland when I hit the UK. When is your Agatha Christie inspired book being published?

  • Kay in KCMO:

    Oh, no. Don’t disparage the nautically-themed hotel. The nautically-themed hotel would be right up my alley. Even the decaying yacht parts. I’d stay there in a heartbeat, I would. There’s something very English about the way they plastered on something to try and make it something else, you know? I bet they were very satisfied with the result when they finished it.

  • I LOVE quirky European hotels. When we went last spring… I used hotel points so we could stay all over Europe for FREE… the only problem being of course that all the rooms were tiny and only slept 2 adults… NO PROBLEM… Since I wasn’t about to PAY for an additional room for the kids… I made my husband and son meet me and my daughter on the 3rd floor next to the elevator each and every time… I LOVED IT! If you are ever in Dublin, Ireland I highly recommend the Westin Hotel… the location is perfect and the maid carts are stocked with good (free) stuff!

  • dee:

    Great post — oh I would LOVE to have a nice “garden!” Don’t have the spare $$ right now nor the time. We have an itty bitty postage stamp backyard, but still….. (And I love the street signs — apparently there is a sense of humor – humour — “over there” after all…grin. LOVE them so much as adapting them for their workplace. As in “Don’t rearrange items on desk. Ever.”)

  • Kristin:

    Oh ugh…that hotel is horrible. If you go back to Bath, stay at the B&B Athole House. It’s wonderful. And you can take a Mad Max mini bus tour to Stonehenge (they go when it’s open). Plus you can leave the CD in KS & do all of the Jane Austen touring you want. And get into a friendly discussion with the free city tour guide about whether Charles knew that Anne & Captain Wentworth needed to be together to talk, or if he really just wanted to see a man about a gun. Our guide thought Charles was being tactful…I think he was selfish & really wanted to dump Anne & see the gun.

  • Clay:

    I went with to England with my aging mother when I was 17, back in the days when you could still wander around the stones of Stonehenge without fences, thinking thoughts of pagan rituals. I have almost no memory of the hotels, but Stratford, with its ancient thatched houses and Shakespeare playhouse, Durham Cathedral with ceiling so high that it is veiled in mist, York Castle with its stock of medieval armor, and Churchill’s palace were all fabulous.

    England is a curious place. Full of surprises. We saw a white-haired, well dressed gentleman wearing a monocle at breakfast one morning as he read the newspaper. Lunch in the basement at one of the castles offered something that looked like a turnover, but turned out to be kidney pie. Surprise! I decided it was good after I got over the shock.

    We didn’t see any English gardens (at least the home variety), which I was hankering to do. I like the discussion and pictures here. Was wondering if we are looking at Liz’s mum’s mums. Sorry, I hardly know one flower from another.

    • Clay – you are looking at Liz’s mums hydrangeas. And they were beautiful. They love that English climate.

  • DirtyKSmama - Nikki:

    The weather of the U.K. reminds me of the weather in the Seattle area – “It’s above 70 degrees and not raining! Get outside!” In fact, the growing conditions of the 2 places were often compared to each other, so flower gardening in the Pacific NW was FUN. I love old architecture as much as I love the outdoors, however, so I would have only been half-fulfilled to spend time in the English gardens and not the homes.

    And that “nautical” hotel? Ugh! You’ve mentioned it before, but I had no idea it would be so ghastly.

  • Georgia:

    New to your Blog and LOVE it. I’ve never been to the UK but long thought English gardens were over rated, sort of hodge podgie, and wouldn’t be something I could sustain feigning interest in. Now I know I’d plead massive allergies if I so much as stepped outside, because I too would much rather absorb the interior of an old English house. Or even a new one!

    Now the Nautical Hotel I would enjoy. Were the individual rooms nautically themed? Pictures of ‘sea captains’, pieces of driftwood for decor? Shells glued to things?

    Stonehenge is now restricted viewing from behind fences? That’s so sad. I’ve read a lot about Stonehenge, the thinking of how it came to be, the meaning of the various faces used and the positioning of the figures.

    Can’t wait to see what your write about next. : )

  • Jimmy:

    As a Brit, I’m officially embarrassed by our architecture. It’s rubbish! Not that many places in the world are great – to be fair: but the past 60 years have mostly been a disaster over here!

    Susie: I’m sorry to say..the hotels in Ireland and Scotland are unfortunately similar in style to those in England. There are some that are fantastic (Edinburgh particularly – and some of the Scottish Highland hotels and Irish Country Estates). But lots are just rubbish. And again, unfortunately we don’t very often know what service is either – though the Irish beat us hands down on that one.

    Rechelle: if you ever go back to Bath, maybe think about saving every penny to try to stay here –

    It’s wonderful and has spectacular gardens. A bit expensive though. Cheap as chips for you Americans right now of course. Well. Maybe not chips. But still…

    Your post is a solid portrait of life in England (and Paris) in the summer. However, come between October and May and the English routine is different (the garden doesn’t feature at all): we usher you into the house, maybe stop for tea – and then push you back out of the front door, down the road and into the pub where you have to drink several pints of warm beer.


  • M.R.:

    Finally! We get to see the nautically themed hotel.

    English gardents are the best! Go to the library and see if you can find The Englishman’s Garden and The Englishwoman’s Garden (edited by Alvilde Lees-Milne and Rosemary Verey). I’ve spent many an hour daydreaming through these books over the years. And have you ever read any Vita Sackville-West?

  • Kathy from NJ:

    This is totally off topic but please please please look at this:

  • km:

    I have been chuckling through this. I always find it hilarious in Ireland how everyone will stop and chat though it’s raining on you. Light rain is totally ignored. Standing outside the chip shop after a nightclub with rain spilling into your curried chips. People you haven’t seen in ages launching into great conversations. My Americanized self thinking “I’m getting soaked here lads, can’t we go under an awning at least”.
    I have a great picture of my youngest at the seaside in his stoller. Winter coat on, blanket well tucked and a fine wooly hat, and it’s August. Just the thing for an Irish Summer’s day:) No wonder most of us can’t swim. It’s an island all right, but that Atlantic is bitter.
    Ireland is a great spot for Americans. They know all your lingo because either they themselves, their kids , their parents, aunts, uncles, or neighbors are/were in Chicago/New York/Boston etc and they’re well used to them coming home needing ice, hot water, central heating, Haagen Daz, clear directions and a half decent cup of coffee. They know you’ll like to see castles and hear music and they’ll give you lots of suggestions. It makes up for the weather and the very low pressure showers in the bathroom. You’ll be asked about someone who lives in Kansas, they’ll know more about your politics than you and they will help you with your genealogy. They are like a good Auntie. Lots of help and comfort but not as nosy or bossy as your mother.My two boys love it there getting spoiled by all the relatives and listening wide-eyed to grown ups with the most elaborate swearing patterns they will ever hear, until they come back to visit next year

  • FL Liz:

    LOL. Wonderful post!!! I’ll be chuckling all day. Jimmy – charming writing too.

    I’ve not been to England, but my son went with a friend to visit the friend’s family. They got to see Stone Henge and I’d thought it was open. I just looked back at the pictures and had thought that they were taken a bit far away to include the ‘stones’, but now see a little rope fence in the background on a few of the pictures.
    I LOVE your narratives – indeed I do.

  • I love those gardens but I wonder who does the upkeep on them. They were beautiful though.

  • km:

    Viki, most people do it themselves. The evenings are cool and as Rechelle said, every chance they’re out in the garden. Plus, if it’s anything like Ireland, you don’t worry about sprinklers or watering because there’s a nice amount of rain. I’m always jealous of people’s hanging baskets etc. in Ireland, and their effortless lawns…(looks out at moss and mess in my yard)

  • Kait:

    Someone should most definitely DIE. How incredibly hideous. Do you still have nightmares? It is no wonder you had to wait so long to talk about it.

  • susan:

    You mentioned mantles and bannisters which I always observe when old – especially the Bristish ones – and my thoughts went to a British movie that has an absolutely unique house. Envelope doors, TONS of leaded glass in the most mundane places, and just reeks of bliss. To me. The film is SEPARATE TABLES. Love it.

  • Heidi:

    While we were in England, even our 18-year-old son was impressed with our friends’ “rear garden.” Our friends had little time to tend their garden as they had 2-year-old twin girls and a four year old boy at the time. And yet it was beautiful – so lush and green.
    They had lived here in Illinois for 2 years so they knew what our yard looked like in July – dry, brown and oh so sad.

  • jw:

    I see what you did there! HAHAHAHA!

    But, yanno, you were much more interesting on your tour, for us. Well, maybe those in the U.S. who haven’t been there. Are you channeling P.W.? *giggles*

    But like you, I would have much rather seen the inside and intricacies of the homes on the INSIDE. I love the “art” of inside architecture. Gardens are lovely, but please, let me explore your home?
    I have often told my hubby, I would love to go to a home, knock on the door, and say, ” Please, may I have a tour of your home?”

    I live in upstate N.Y. Hell, everything is “upstate” from N.Y.C., so that cracks my shit up! But they do have wonderful architecture here.

  • Gardening and bracing days at the seaside – that is us! I hope you had a stick of rock.

  • km:

    OMG, a stick of rock. Souvenir of wherever written in pink through the whole stick. They were my favorites when i was small, even when they got covered in lint:)