Who knew? I was surprised to discover that the origin of the Stars & Stripes wasn't in Betsy Ross' living room after all, but in the coat of arms of the Washington Family, dating back at least to the 16th century, at the home of George Washington's ancestors in England.

Curious about George's background, I went recently to Sulgrave Manor (c. 1540), in the village of Sulgrave, not far from Banbury in Oxfordshire, to have a look-see, as a common English expression has it. Even if you weren't interested in the George Washington connection, I believe you would find this interesting for its marvelous old furniture and fabrics. The builder, Lawrence, erected the first building in Tudor times, but around 1700 the new owners (since 1673), the Hodge family, added a Queen Anne period wing, letting it to tenants in 1757. It became decayed and neglected until it was rescued by the British American Peace Committee in 1914, celebrating 100 years since the end of the second War of Independence (we call it the War of 1812, also), determined to create a memorial to friendship between the two nations.

The building was opened to the public in 1921 to symbolize the links between the peoples of the U.S. and the United Kingdom, for whom it is held in trust. A significant portion of the manor's income is provided by school groups, about 11,000 children coming here each year to see a prime example of a manor house from Shakespeare's time and, almost incidentally, to look at the home as that of George's ancestors. Many of the kids come in Tudor period costume, and the director, Ms. Wendy Barnes, noted that those in costume "behave better than those in normal attire."

From Sheep to Stars & Stripes

Lawrence Washington moved to this neighborhood from the Durham area and in 1539, built Sulgrave Manor's original structure. He was, if you're keeping track, George's great-great-great-great-great grandfather, and grew rich in the wool trade, with a huge flock of sheep on the farm. The building has seen plenty of history and activity, being equal in age to those which Shakespeare was familiar with. I thought especially fine the (Tudor) Great Hall (with an original Gilbert Stuart portrait of George) and the Tudor Bedchamber, as well as the Oak Parlour (Queen Anne period) and the Great Kitchen, said to be one of the best preserved in the UK, though it is not original to Sulgrave Manor. A separate Washington Room houses the George Washington collection and his ancestors' legacies. You can look up and see the Washington coat of arms on the facade of the main building. Its two red stripes and three stars on a white background were no doubt the inspiration for the American flag, and the coat of arms is the basis of Washington, D.C.'s flag to this day as well.

In the garden is a monstrously large bust of George, a copy of the one at George Washington University in Washington DC and given to Sulgrave Manor by that educational establishment recently. Descendants or relatives of the Washington family are asked to sign a special Visitors Book, in case you are one such. There were 17 at last count, just since 2006. There's also the Exhibition Rooms, in an old dairy building, housing displays, audio and video presentations about George.

About 9,000 adults come through the property each year, the manor administration says. The manor is open from April through October on weekends from noon, and from May through October additionally from 2 PM on Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Admission L6.55 (about $10.50). There's a Buttery for light lunches on weekends, snacks otherwise, and a nice gift shop. Contact them at Sulgrave Manor, Sulgrave nr. Banbury, Oxfordshire OX17 2SD (tel. 011/49 1295 760205;

Sulgrave Village

The village is remarkable for its compactness. My hosts had thoughtfully provided a Google map, which showed all the village's four streets in a tiny graphic in a print-out about one inch wide and tall. The church is of interest, with a porch added by Lawrence in memory of his wife. Opposite the entrance to the Manor is a wonderful Thatched House, too. There's a Sulgrave Countryside walks booklet you might find useful, as I did. You could easily visit from here the great tourist centers of Oxford (33 miles), Stratford-upon-Avon (32 miles), the Cotswolds and Warwick Castle (25 miles).


For dinner, I walked what seemed the entire length of the village, exactly 800 steps, to the 300-year-old Star Inn, where I had an excellent fish pie for £12.95 and a fine regional beer. They also have a few rooms to let, doubles from £80. For some reason, the Star says it "was reputedly visited by the late, great actor John Wayne." (I guess they're not sure, but with a 300-year-old memory to deal with, some facts are bound to get lost.) Contact: Manor Road, Sulgrave, near Banbury, (tel. 011/44 1295 760 389;


I stayed at the fairly Spartan but pleasant Six Bells B&B, on Church Street. Once a pub, it's an attractive stone house on the edge of the village green. Each room has TV and coffee/tea making machine, and some rooms have attached baths, as mine did. I had a splendid English breakfast, with bacon and eggs, grilled tomato, sausage and mushrooms. There was also cereal and OJ on hand. Rooms from L30 and up ($48). Contact them at Sulgrave, near Banbury (tel. 011/44 1295 760 653; no website).


For free maps, brochures, vacation-planning advice and a wide selection of passes and transport tickets, go to