my hands are shaking steering wheel as I take a quick look at an ancient dust gray wall. The men and women who shaped the Western world lived on the other side of that ancient wall for about 850 years. I am alone outside of it, wondering about the treasures within.
Behind the wall, a castle rises into the deep blue English sky, and what it lacks in height it makes up for in depth and breadth. Windsor Castle, where English royalty has resided since the 12th century, covers 484,000 square meters on an area of 13 hectares. I glanced to the left again – out the passenger window, which will take me another two days to accept – to see this medieval wonder and BAM! hit the curb and HONK! cut someone and HONK! HONK! botch a roundabout.
I get lost in a maze of narrow streets and can’t find a square inch to park. I wonder if I have flown 3,976 miles to London to examine the life of our city’s namesake, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, only to stumble upon her doorstep.
Just before I give up, I find a place wide enough for my car as long as I don’t open the door. I manage to slip out and walk deep in history. England’s past pales in comparison to our own, a truth that permeates my 11 days – my first ever – in the UK. It mostly hits at Windsor Castle. Queen Charlotte did not live there until 1776, when the castle was already about 600 years old. The oldest house in Charlotte, the city, won’t turn 600 years old until 2374.
I visit Windsor, Kew Gardens and Buckingham Palace to see where Queen Charlotte reigned and ruled. Why now, more than 200 years after her death? Charlotte, as they say, is having a moment, thanks to Netflix Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story.
She was born in 1744. At the age of 17, she moved from Germany to England and, six hours after her arrival, married King George III. Charlotte gave birth to 15 children, met Mozart, quarreled with her mother-in-law, wanted to live in peace, died in 1818 and was stamped with her name on our welcome signs. Did we become like her? I ask Natalee Garrett, a history professor at England’s Open University who is writing a biography titled Queen Charlotte: Family, Duty, Scandal. If a city takes on the personality of the person it’s named for, what would you expect Charlotte to be like?
Her response, via email: “I would expect Charlotte to be a city with a deep appreciation for art, music and education. It would be grand, but also a place that is down to earth and friendly. Although Charlotte’s position meant she had to behave royally in public, her letters show that she had a great sense of humor and was not afraid to laugh at herself.”
Some of them are in Queen Charlotte. Some are not. In the show, Charlotte is biracial. The basis for this, hotly debated in the press and on social media, is the research of historian Mario de Valdes y Cocom, who says that Charlotte was descended from black Portuguese nobility. Everyone, it seems, has dug into her life—except, I discover, the people who work in Windsor.
I want to see her grave. The first attendant mistakenly tells me he’s not buried there and makes me feel like a dumb Yank for asking. The second one doesn’t know where he’s buried, but suggests I check at St. George’s Cathedral on the grounds. The first doctor of the cathedral sends me to distinguish W. The doctor at W tells me X, X tells me Y and Y tells me Z, at this moment I say to myself: Leave it alone.
I care more about what it was like to live here than to be dead here anyway. Garrett tells me the queen enjoyed exploring the grounds but found the castle cold and scratchy; it has more than 1,000 rooms, but only a third have fireplaces.
“Honoured visitors” do not gather on my terrace at home, as Garrett says they did for the Queen. But enough of my kids’ friends wander onto our porch that, here at the castle, I mentally punch them. Inside, suits of armor stand prominently in every room. Through a window, I see grass rolling in the distance. Having such a lawn would be wonderful. To cut it short, not so much. I see what Charlotte saw, plus an unattended device that moves like a Roomba while cutting grass. Charlotte has never encountered an autonomous lawnmower, unless you count sheep.
It’s easier to get to Kew Gardens than Windsor Castle. I only get lost once, when I miss a turn, and I almost crash my rental car only once, when I wash a retaining wall. Driving around London during rush hour is like driving a lap while taking notes with the wrong hand.
I enter Kew with the anxiety born of a long commute to London, but relax as I stroll the 330-acre property, which hosts a world record 16,900 plant species. Queen Charlotte, Garrett tells me in her email, “took lessons in (botany) from leading experts, had numerous scientific works dedicated to her, and took a keen interest in the flower gardens of the royal residences.”
When I describe my creeping relaxation to a woman at the information booth, she smiles knowingly. I thank him and almost walk into an automatic door that doesn’t open fast enough.
The highlight at Kew is Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, where Charlotte and her daughters often took tea. A 25 minute walk from Kew Palace seems like a long way to go just for tea. On the other hand, they probably wanted to get out of Kew Palace, where George was getting really mad.
I sit on the front porch of the cottage and I would like to drink tea. Birds have familiar shapes but unfamiliar colors, and vice versa: One looks like a black bird with red wings, God made the day he ran out of red, and lime-green birds fly around as if someone has tied their heads.
I take the long way and stop at the Treetop Walkway loop. I pass schoolboys in uniforms and Americans in Buffalo Bills gear (they play in London two days later). Many of them wander, like me.
Charlotte would have approved. “There are many anecdotes of the king and queen walking around Kew with their children following them in pairs – affectionately referred to as the ‘royal crocodile’ by locals,” says Garrett. “George and Charlotte’s love of a simple life earned them much ridicule and criticism, but many of their subjects admired them for it.”
The founders of our city originally called it “Charlottetowne” and the county containing it “Mecklenburg” in honor of the queen and the northern German territory she was from. They were trying to curry favor with George III and push the North Carolina General Assembly into establishing the new county seat here. It worked: The Legislature designated the city of Charlotte in 1768 and entitled the city to a courthouse and jail. Queen Charlotte was 24 years old. She never visited the town that bears her name—she apparently never left southern England, Garrett says—and there is no record of what she thought of the honor. She probably saw it for what it was: a power grab.
Power is on my mind as I visit Buckingham Palace. I’ve put it last on my list because it seems like a tourist cliché, but nothing in the UK lasted quite like the Buckingham Walk. I am an incurable eavesdropper and can hardly hear English. I keep thinking that I am not in London, but in Berlin, Jerusalem or Mecca. I am soon amazed to see road signs in English and use hand gestures to communicate.
I don’t feel a connection with Queen Charlotte there like at Windsor and Kew. Nothing in Buckingham is the same as it was when she lived there. Now it’s one of the most famous mansions in the world, but when George bought Buckingham for Charlotte, it was a house, not a palace, and a fixer-upper – “a rural retreat”, says Garrett. George kept sheep and cows. Charlotte owned an elephant and a zebra, both of which were diplomatic gifts and apparently what you get for someone who has everything.
Still, we immortalize it in our own way: through a city bustling with NBA and NFL teams, Ric Flair, almost as many breweries as Kew Gardens, and enough plant species and banks to impress the most eccentric middleman. energy in London. Wait, she’ll see what we’ve done above.
You have to eat fish and chips in a proper chippy; steak pie that is actually a pie and not a flaky pastry casserole on top; and pop in for a Sunday roast, which includes roast beef, roast potatoes, roast vegetables, Yorkshire pudding and more. Blacklocka chain of restaurants and coal-fired pits throughout the city, serves this traditional meal only on Sundays, and in the knowledge that “it’s going to be almost as good as mom’s.”
For a central location, stay in Covent Garden. Savoy opened in 1889 and Gordon Ramsay runs his own restaurant, the Savoy Grill. Midweek room rates start at $796 and top out at $4,232. like Telegraph wrote: “For the original spirit and colorful history of a historic hotel, blended with timeless contemporary luxury, look no further.”
If this is not in your budget, Strand palace ($260 per night) offers hospitality in many colors: the elevators are made of gold, the Gin Palace bar has burgundy upholstery, and the coffee-decorated Haxells restaurant will remind you of a certain basketball team. In winter, it’s a short walk to ice skating Somerset House.
The budget-conscious can find plenty of good hotels near Heathrow Airport and an easy bus, underground or shared ride to and from attractions. I stayed in Delta Hotels Heathrow Windsor ($160 per night), an outstanding Marriott property with the best hotel breakfast I’ve ever had.
Do not hesitate to attend all the obvious things, which are still worth seeing – those tower of London, British Museum, Westminster Abbeyetc. Climb 525 feet long Heavenly court at its rooftop restaurant for a panoramic view of this ancient city. Modern categories stand side by side with buildings 700 years older than America. If you walk from the Sky Garden to the 130-year-old Tower Bridge, you will cross All Hallows from the Towera church founded in AD 675 Catch a Premier League football game, which evokes the excitement and rivalry of the ACC basketball, only every Saturday and with even more hooliganism. underground, or Tube, is more than just a mode of transport. It’s a Valhalla watching people. Stonehenge it’s only an 80-minute drive from Heathrow, although I’d recommend any of the many group tours to drive there yourself. Upon arrival, you’ll be just as blown away by seeing it in person as you were on TV.
MATT CROSSMAN is a writer and former Charlotte resident living in St. Louis. Follow his work at mattcrossman.substack.com.