In the morning, I took a backstage tour of The Royal Opera House. I wasn’t allowed to take photos, but if you’re ever in London, I highly recommend it. Fascinating tour – they do absolutely everything on site, from creating the costumes from scratch, to making sets and props, to ballet class, to…well. Let’s just say that complex is HUGE. All these massive underground levels, each painted a different color so people won’t get lost quite so frequently. Here’s a video showing how the amazing stage works. It’s just so cool.
I wish we had been able to see more of the costume department, but I did get to see the dyeing/distressing room, with its massive vats of dye and their newest machine – one that can print any design on any fabric. It was cool.
Next, I met my friend Alberta at Victoria Station, and we traveled together to Leeds Castle. They have a B&B in the old stable, and it’s so beautiful. Quite luxurious!
The view out the window was so pretty.
The time I spent at Leeds Castle was really the only bad weather I had, during the entire trip. It rained pretty much the entire two days. Sometimes just a drizzle, other times a complete downpour. It was still lovely.
The gardens around the stables were spectacular, even though it was September, and a bit past the garden prime time. Lots of espaliered fruit trees, too…including pears.
There were acres of land to wander in, and I wish the weather had been finer so I would have.
There were also tons of birds, everywhere. Wild birds, like falcons and owls, and tame birds.
There were peahens there – although oddly, not a single peacock that we ever saw. And the peahens had chicks! So cute. I wish I’d been able to get a better pic.
Since we were “living” there, we had free access to all parts of the grounds, and also to the castle itself.
Though it had obviously been completely redone since her day, I loved that Queen Catherine of Aragon once lived here, and slept in this very room. It’s always fascinating to walk through the same places where these historical people I’ve read about all my life once walked, and touch the same stone walls that once they touched.
This room was my favorite, though. I think you can guess why!
It had the nicest little window seat nooks for reading in.
But what I really came to Leeds Castle for was their Owl Experiences. The night/morning before, it poured. Poured. I was very freaked out that they would have to cancel on me. But by ten o’clock, the weather had cleared to a sporadic drizzle, and we were good to go.
I met my falconer, Reece, and he introduced me to all 26 birds of prey Leeds has – not just the owls.
I love how the UK falconry laws work. The birds are not captured wild, like in the States. They are captive-bred, and the falconer gets the chicks when they are just a few days old. He brings them home, into his house with him, and bonds/imprints with them. Reece said that the first time he brought an Owl chick home, he was still living with his parents, and they were a little concerned about having an owl living with them. He left the chick in her cage while he went out to run an errand, and told them: “You can take her out if you want, or just leave her alone.” He came home to find his dad asleep on the couch in front of the tv…with the owl cuddled into his neck, also asleep. After that, they had no problem with owls!
This is Coco. She’s still a baby herself, and the youngest owl they currently have.
Coco didn’t yet know how to fly to her handler’s glove, but she was perfectly happy to sit on my glove, and have her head scratched. She was so unbelievably soft and sweet! When I petted her, she would just close her eyes in complete happiness.
I flew about six different owls during the Experience. One was very tiny.
But the other owls ranged in size all the way up to an Eagle Owl. (My thanks to Alberta, for taking these next photographs!)
Even the largest of the owls, though, was super light when they landed on my glove. And they all liked to be petted and even snuggled.
This was one of those experiences that is so worth the money. And it’s one that’s impossible to do in the States. Our laws regarding birds of prey (and all birds, really) are draconian, and the reasons why are outdated. Do you know that you cannot legally possess a single bird feather that you might find while walking down the street? No, that’s illegal, unless it’s a feather from a pigeon, a starling, or a couple other birds. I’ve heard of people who have rescued a baby crow, only to have the crow taken away from them and killed by the State. People who abuse animals should be more harshly punished than they are, but people who care for animals properly shouldn’t be punished for keeping an “illegal” animal. And those who say owls don’t make good companions because they don’t like human contact, well, that’s just stupid. And proven wrong in the first five second of my owl experience. Keeping an owl shouldn’t be any different than keeping, say, a horse. Both are animals that require money, experience, specialized care, and could be dangerous if mishandled. Let’s just ban all the animals! And if you want to spend a couple of hours in an adorable time-suck, just go onto YouTube and search for pet owls.
Okay, ranting on the stupid US laws aside, this was one of the best days I’ve had, and will be a treasured memory. And if I ever go back to the UK, I’m totally doing it again.
Most falconers who take birds from the wild will only take young (passager) birds in their first year and release them in their second after they have been trained to hunt and treated for parasites. Since 90% of these young birds will not survive into adulthood in the wild, falconers are actually improving their chances significantly. Nice to see the setup at Leeds!