I am recently returned from three weeks in England--our eleventh trip there. Of all these trips and all the stately homes I've visited, I've never been able to see Althorp, the ancestral home of the Spencers, Princess Diana's illustrious family. The home is still owned by the family, her brother Earl Spencer, age 53. It's usually open to the public in August, but I've never visited England in August because Europeans holiday at that time, and I don't like crowds.
When I discovered the home was to be open to the public from noon to 5 on Father's Day, I was ecstatic.
Little did I know that single trip to Althorp would be the most memorable in a long list of memorable trips. And not in a good way.
As owners of a 22-day unlimited BritRail pass, we took the rail from London that morning to the nearest train station to Althorp, Long Buckby. The Althorp website said taxis from that rail station would deliver us to Althorp in about ten minutes for a cost of about £10 ($13).
However, when we stepped off the train, my husband said, "Uh, oh." It might have been a busy station on weekdays, but on this Sunday it was deserted. There was no taxi rank, no sign with a phone number for a taxi (if I even knew how to make calls in England), and there was nothing around the station but barren fields. It was in the middle of nowhere.
After about a 20-minute wait, we lucked out when a taxi delivered a woman to the station. We waved madly to get his attention. He took us to Althorp. It was in the middle of nowhere. The meter read £21 ($27.30).
Even worse, when he pulled up to the gates, it looked like the gates were closed. They were. Eventually a young man came out of the gate house and apologized to us, telling us the house was closed for a special event, but we could come back at 2.
Have I mentioned that England was gripped with an unprecedented heat wave? We couldn't stand there in the 90-plus degree sun for two hours, and I wasn't keen to pay four taxi fares that would add up to over $100. I expressed my concerns to the young man.
He told us we could pass the next two hours at the old Althorp Coaching Inn, which was three miles away, and he told our taxi driver how to get there. The driver dropped us off at the inn. By then the meter read £25 ($32.50).
The inn/pub was probably the cutest we've ever seen. I could imagine how cozy the interior rooms with their low ceilings and fireplaces would be in the winter. On this sweltering day, most people were outside where there were several eating areas, many of them shaded. We got a great shady spot and had lunch and pint.
I told my husband I thought we could walk back to Althorp. We're both stout walkers and had been logging about six miles a day on the trip. I programmed it into the GPS on my iPhone, and we set off.
Unfortunately, there were no sidewalks, and even though we saw zero houses, cars kept whizzing past, so we couldn't walk on the road. Progress was slow because the terrain was so uneven. It was also unfortunate that there was no shade. That hot sun was baking us. I was sweat soaked. My jeans felt like they were made of heavy wool. Fortunately, we had two bottles of water. My iPhone said it was 1.8 miles. We could do it in 33 minutes. The iPhone told me so.
My iPhone lied.
We walked past a sign pointing to Althorp. My phone said to go a different way. I told my husband the GPS would always take us on the shorter route.
More than an hour later we reached an old unused gate. It was locked. My iPhone said we'd arrived.
My iPhone lied.
By then I was really worried about my husband because he's prone to heat stroke. I told him I must try to find out where we were so I could try to figure out how to call a taxi to come take us to the train station. I couldn't get a name for where we were, and my husband said we'd come that far, he was going to insist that I see Althorp.
So we retraced our steps. It was the hottest day of the year. It was 94. And we had not dressed appropriately. If we saw a lone tree, we'd go stand under it for a moment. Then continue on.
We reached Althorp at 4, just in time for the last tour of the day. Our walk from the coaching inn had taken two-and-a-half hours. Our faces were beet red. Our hair was wet with sweat. Our clothes were soaked.
I saw a sign that said Lord Spencer was going to be signing his new book in the gift shop at 4. I could have cried. If we'd gotten there earlier, in a taxi, I could have met the earl. As it was, I didn't even have to choose between seeing the house or meeting the earl because I would never present myself in front of the earl looking as bedraggled as I was. This old chick has her pride.
As we waited for the tour, I was mopping the sweat from my brow while griping to some ladies about the special event that had destroyed our afternoon plans. Those coming off a grueling two-and-a-half hour trek need to vent to someone.
After the tour, we went to the gift shop to ask them to call us a taxi, and those sweet ladies we'd spoken to earlier offered to give us a lift to the rail station.
So despite the absence of a taxi rank at the rail station, despite that the house opening was delayed for two hours, despite the most miserable two-and-a-half hour walk in my life, there were three bright spots. The 500-year-old Althorp was a wonderful ancestral home. The Althorp Coaching Inn was the quaintest such place I've ever seen. And I got to meet two lovely ladies who were incredibly kind to a pair of bedraggled tourists. I have since sent them autographed copies of my books. Oh, yeah. I learned something too. Don't trust the GPS on your iPhone.---Cheryl Bolen's latest release is a Regency historical romance titled Miss Hastings' Excellent London Adventure.