Culture / Travel

A Texan’s Guide to Castle Hopping Across London — From Bristol to Buckingham Palace

While the Coronation of King Charles III Loomed, an Austin Mother Forged Her Own Fairytale

BY // 05.11.23

As a childhood lover of fairy tales and an undergrad who studied Shakespeare, I have always wanted to spend the night in a castle. As the coronation of England’s next monarch, King Charles III, approached, it seemed the perfect time to catch a direct flight to London and dive into the fascinating history of England. . . and to channel my inner royal.

London was abuzz with excitement and preparation for the 67th monarchal coronation—the last monarch crowned was Prince Charles’ mother, Queen Elizabeth II, in 1953. Shops across the city were featuring souvenirs, from King Charles III mugs and biscuit tins to commemorative plates featuring images of Queen Elizabeth II and her family; limited-edition teapots adorned with gold trim and elegant designs; and a range of high-end jewelry items at the majestic Harrod’s (essentially the Neiman Marcus of London). City streets were decorated with festive flags and bunting, while shops and restaurants were offering special deals and promotions in honor of the coronation.

I began my trip with a walking tour, which was a wonderful remedy for jet lag and also gave me historical context for my upcoming castle sojourn. I tried the full-day City Experiences Comprehensive London Tour, and being escorted by a brilliant guide around the quintessential sights of the city was heaven.

 

Buckingham Palace 5
The Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace

My palace adventure began at Buckingham Palace, the official London residence of the British monarch. Its iconic façade and opulent interiors have been transformed into a dazzling display of lights and colors for the upcoming ceremonies. The Queen’s Guard are also in full regalia—scarlet tunics, black trousers with red striped, and bearskin hats—adding to the grandeur of the occasion.

 

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Westminster Abbey in London

Westminster Abbey

King Charles III’s coronation took place at Westminster Abbey. My tour was able to see the Coronation Chair, which dates back to 1300. The chair has been used in every coronation since the 14th century and is carved with intricate Gothic designs. It also has a large wooden block under the seat, which is said to be a piece of the original Stone of Scone, a traditional symbol of Scottish kingship. The abbey is also home to numerous tombs of monarchs and other famous figures, including Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Stephen Hawking, and Sir Isaac Newton.

 

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The Tower Bridge outside the Tower of London

The Tower of London

The Tower of London is a castle in the city center that has served variously as a royal palace, fortress, and prison. It is the repository of the Crown Jewels of England, which are displayed in the Jewel House and attract millions of visitors each year. I gaped as I took in the dazzling array of objects, such as crowns, scepters, orbs, swords, and rings, all of which are made from precious metals and encrusted with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and other gems.

Some of the items, such as the “Sword of Mercy,” were missing in preparation for the coronation ceremony, but the empty velvet case with a sign saying “In Use,” was almost as thrilling as seeing the precious item itself.

 

Kensington Palace (photo by Nicholas Musilli)

Kensington Palace

Magnificent Kensington Palace has been home to many members of the British Royal Family for over 300 years. Through October 2023, the palace is hosting “Crown to Couture,” a dynamite exhibit featuring over 200 items—including gowns worn by Beyoncé, Lizzo, Katy Perry, and Billie Eilish; and historic gowns on loan from the National Museums Scotland and the Historic Royal Palaces’ Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection.

The exhibit draws fascinating parallels between the world of today’s red carpet and the Georgian Royal Court in the 18th century and reminded me in scale and impact of the stunning Christian Dior show at the Dallas Museum of Art in 2019.

 

Bristol Harbour Resort and Spa in London
Bristol Harbour Resort and Spa

Bristol

I made Bristol my base for exploring castles outside of London. The charming city is located in the southwest and is known for its vibrant culture, stunning architecture, and lively nightlife. I stayed at the appealing Bristol Harbour Resort and Spa. One of Bristol’s most famous attractions is the street art scene, thanks to the renowned graffiti artist Banksy. His work can be found throughout the city, and I had fun tracking down his famous “Girl with Balloon” mural on Park Street.

 

Castles across London
Berkeley Castle

Berkeley Castle

From Bristol, I headed to Berkeley Castle, a historic property with connections to the royal family. The castle has been home to the Berkeley family for over 900 years. The interior is filled with exquisite paintings, tapestries, and antiques, and the gardens are a delight to explore.

 

The gardens at Sudeley Castle.
The gardens at Sudeley Castle.

Sudeley Castle

I also visited Sudeley Castle, a historic property with ties to the Tudor dynasty. The castle boasts stunning gardens, medieval ruins, and even a banqueting hall where King Henry VIII and his wife, Anne Boleyn, once dined. The owner, Lady Ashcombe, grew up in Texas and later studied at the University of Texas at Austin before moving to London in the 1960s.

In 1972, Lady Ashcombe married Henry Dent-Brocklehurst, who would later inherit Sudeley Castle. She was deeply involved in the restoration and preservation of Sudeley Castle, and lives there today. (I spotted her from a distance, walking her dog in the garden, and thought of crying out, “Hook ‘Em, Horns!” but refrained.)

 

Thornbury Castle

Luxuriating in History at Thornbury Castle

While late-night Googling “exquisite castles where I can spend the night,” I discovered Thornbury Castle, a historic Tudor castle in South Gloucestershire, England, which was originally built in the 16th century for Edward Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham. Over the centuries, the castle has been used for various purposes, including as a honeymoon stay for King Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn, in 1535.

The King Henry VIII Suite in Thornbury Castle.

In recent years, Thornbury Castle has undergone an extensive renovation to transform it into a five-star, Relais & Châteaux-member hotel with intricate woodwork, leaded windows, and period furnishings. My room was a magical retreat, with a plush canopy bed, a fireplace, and a stone window seat overlooking the gardens. The renovation has preserved many of the castle’s historic features, including its grand hall, Tudor gardens, and original architecture. Visitors can stay in one of the castle’s 27 luxurious guest rooms, which have been tastefully decorated to blend modern comforts with traditional Tudor design.

JamesVbathroom
The bathroom of the King James V suite in Thornbury Castle

One of the standout features of Thornbury Castle is its restaurant, which is known for its exquisite cuisine and elegant atmosphere. I truly felt as if I had been transported back in time as I sat in the beautiful room, sunset light falling over my table from stained glass windows. The windows, installed during the Victorian era and featuring coats of arms of various historical figures, are made of leaded glass and set within stone mullions. The restaurant, which offers a range of seasonal dishes made with locally sourced ingredients, as well as an extensive wine list featuring wines from around the world, is designed in the Tudor style and feels sumptuous and sophisticated. A large fireplace made the sophisticated room feel intimate.

My meals at the castle’s restaurant were a true highlight. I started with salmon from Loch Duart, a small, independent Scottish salmon farming company, followed by a perfectly seared halibut. My dessert was an apple cheesecake that looked like a work of art. I also dined in the Tudor Hall, which was filled with conversation and beautiful chandeliers; the more low-key menu features all-day dining and I savored my date and ginger sponge cake with warm toffee sauce.

Afternoon tea at Thornbury Castle.

In addition to its hotel and dining offerings, Thornbury Castle also offers a range of wellness and relaxation experiences, including spa treatments, falconry lessons, and the opportunity to order a bespoke Tudor gown or dress as a Tudor for a photo session.

Thornbury Castle’s lush gardens are divided into four sections, each with its own unique features. There’s a Tudor knot garden, a kitchen garden, a vineyard, and a walled garden with a fountain and a lily pond. I wandered around the walled gardens at night, the moon making everything glow. As I fell asleep in my four-poster bed under a golden coverlet, I felt as if I were living in a fairy tale, one with the happiest ending: the story of a middle-aged mom from Texas who was pampered like royalty on a moonlit night.

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