Friday, January 30, 2009

Left instead of right - 24 January 2009

Dr Samuel Johnson once said, “He who is tired of London is tired of life” and so we never tire of walking the streets and alleys of London because no matter how well you think you Toyshopknow an area you can always find that if you turn right instead of left you will find a whole different world that you never realised was there.

Such was our experience on Saturday when we left Goodge St Station. It is on Tottenham Court Rd, just up from Oxford St, what else is there to know?

Pollock’s Toy MuseumWell, the Pollock’s Toy Museum for starters. Tucked around the back, in a couple of old buildings (one with it’s original 1760s’ interiors) is an amazing collection of old toys, dolls, bears, games and so on. Benjamin Pollock was one of the last producers of theatre scenes for two theatres – all hand painted. A toyshop remains to this day and the museum is a rabbit warren of stairs and rooms that spans the two buildings.

Food shopSex shop
Across the bustle of Oxford St one is quickly in Soho Square, a hundred years older than the building we had just left but no longer home to the aristocrats who first built there and soon you are in the middle of the sleaze area of London. As well as being home to some in the oldest profession it is home to Lina Stores, a grocery store that looks unchanged, inside an out, from the early 20th C.

Storm TrouperChinatown
Around the corner is a complete change as you enter Chinatown, bedecked with lanterns for the imminent Chinese New Year celebrations. Trafalgar Square and Nelson's ColumnA couple more corners and it is Leicester Square, home of the movie premieres but, sadly, no longer home to the mechanical clock on the Swiss Centre. The building that housed it has been demolished. Will the glockenspiel clock that had been there for over 20 years, return?

Britain’s smallest Police StationBy now the National Gallery and Trafalgar Square are just around the corner and something that we have walked past dozens of times takes on a new significance. The little round construction close to the Tube entrance was once Britain’s smallest Police Station. There may have been room for the Bobby to turn around inside once he had entered but it would be a close run thing.

Ancient Lights - 24 January 2008

On our Saturday walk we came across two buildings with signs simply stating “Ancient Lights”. The fact that one of them was right beside a light fitting that appeared to have come from the 19th century had nothing to do with it.

“Ancient Lights” is a legal phrase that confers special protection to a window. If the window bas been enjoying natural light for over 20 years then it is illegal to obstruct the natural light that the building receives.

We also passed a few other ancient lights as well; a couple of them were gas-lamps.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Kensington Palace - 18 January 2009

Kensington Palace GatesAmazingly, we had never visited Kensington Palace even though it is only about 5 minute’s walk from where I work. So we decided this was another omission to correct and set off to visit. Although we have visited hundreds of castles, palaces, stately homes, mansions and manor houses since we arrived in the UK, the displays and rooms at Kensington Palace still impressed Kensington Palace Orangeryus. The “tailor’s shop” and the “dressmaker’s room” were most fascinating.

The temporary display featured the Last Debutantes. This 200-year-old tradition of presenting the daughters of the gentry to the Monarch finished in 1958; probably much to the relief of the fathers who had to put their hand in their pocket for (in today’s money) anywhere between £11,500 and £130,000 depending on Grey Squirrelwhether he was paying for a low-end or top-end “season” for his daughter: gowns, parties, accessories, a ball and so on; it all mounted up. Then, when the season had been successful and daughter had snagged the scion of another landed family, poor old dad had to fork out for a wedding!

Diana Memorial FountainKensington Palace was the home of Diana and some of her dresses are on display so it seemed only proper to cross the Gardens and visit the Diana Memorial Fountain in the corner of Hyde Park. It looked a little forlorn, only a few rain water puddles and lots of leaves clogging under the bridges.

The Round PondA week ago, the Round Pond in Kensington Gardens was covered in ice and the risk averse Health and Safety bods had directed the park staff to break the ice around the edge to discourage anyone from venturing on to the ice. Today the ice was well gone and the pond was, once again, the preserve of the swans and geese.

One good Turner deserves another - 17 January 2009

Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of CanterburyBeing the last possible weekend to see the 2008 Turner Prize finalists at the Tate Britain, we thought we had better finally subject ourselves to the culture provided by this great British institution. It is amazing the feelings that are whipped up (usually by the media) every year as the Turner Prize finalists are announced and then, ultimately, the winner.

After being exposed, by the aforementioned media in the past, Tate Britainand in-the-flesh this year we have to lay bare our bourgeois taste and admit that we find the art of the original Turner, after whom the prize is named, much more satisfying and so, while at the Tate, we revisited the familiar Constables and Turners and also a new interactive presentation which graphically displayed the different colour palettes Turner used as he travelled around Europe; it was very well done, quite fascinating and educational.

Houses of Parliament across the Thames
The King has lost his headBack on the South Bank of the Thames we called in at the recently refurbished Garden Museum where they have made some major additions to the inside of the old church that houses the museum. The additions are most tastefully done and beautifully blend in with the colour of the interior stonework of the church. The museum cafĂ© offers some of the best value meals in London, very generous mains for £6: we had a cake and a cuppa.

The Bobby has lost his britchesMaking our way downstream, past the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye (broken) we arrived at the South Bank Arts complex. Always thronged with tourists and strollers it is a prime area for the outdoor entertainers and buskers as well as a magnet for skateboarders and BMX bikers. An area under the theatres has become a graffiti canvas for the skateboard and bike fraternity.
The boys on display
Over the river again the ice-skating was still in full swing at Somerset House and just around the corner, tucked away down an alley, is a National Trust property, an original Roman Bath House. Unless a private viewing is organised, it is only available to view from the outside through the window.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Frost-free teaser - 11 January 2009

11 January10 January
As the overnight temperature was close to zero we headed back to Aston Wood to enjoy walking through the winter wonderland we had seen yesterday. Fingest's Norman TowerHowever a warm wind had blown in overnight and, we discovered later, the frost had disappeared by 1 a.m. What a disappointment, not a frosty branch to be seen anywhere and the ground frost had also melted so the walk to the viewpoint at the end of Beacon Hill was muddy and slushy with the melt-water run-off.

Since that was a relatively short stroll we went down the road to Cadmore End and walked from there to Fingest and back. It was a shame to not see this at its best: Spring would be great; Autumn would be stunning; a frosty day would be good; but today it was just drab winter. Looking down on FingestThe day was rescued by a great pub lunch at the Chequers, Fingest where the parish church is graced with a magnificent Norman tower that has stood there for the the last 900 years.

The NZ Connection - 10 January 2009

Aston WoodHaving a need to be in the Birmingham area we set off along the M40 and before long were driving through a winter wonderland of white, not from snow but from wind frost which entirely covered the vegetation. Knowing that there was a short detour which would take us through Aston Wood, we exited at Junction 5 and followed the A40 to Junction 6 stopping for a photo-shoot along the way.

Wind frostEarlswood Lake

Our first destination was Earlswood where there are some lakes that were made as a water source for the nearby canal. The lakes were completely frozen over, not thick enough to walk on but enough to make them beautiful in a monochromatic winter way. After a 5-mile walk around one of the lakes and the countryside nearby we set of for Hagley Hall.
The dog was naturally white
Hagley Hall (think Hagley Park, Chch) is the family home of the Viscounts Lyttleton (think Lyttleton Harbour) as it was the 4th Lord Lyttleton who was involved in the settlement of Canterbury, NZ. Somewhere along the way a marriage brought the Cobham name to the family and it was the 10th Viscount, Lord Cobham who was Governor General of NZ from 1957 to 1961 (think Cobham Drive, Wellington). Because of the NZ connection we were warmly welcomed as we were taken on our private guided tour. (Given the bitterly cold day, I don't imagine there would have been a huge visitor turn out.)The church on the Hagley EstateFrosted Holly

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

A fine and frosty start to the year - 3 January 2009

Horsing about with the localsFrosty oak leaves

On a sunny frosty day it is a delight to go walking in the countryside. South Weston church steeple We left London for the Chilterns, and enjoyed a circular walk through three villages, each with a different and distinctive steeple/tower. The air was crisp and clear; the kestrels were soaring overhead; the puddles were frozen, as was the mud churned up by cattle some time before the cold arrived.

Half way round was a warm and cosy pub, Ye Olde Leathern Bottel, a great place for a brief stop in the warmth. This is winter at its best.
Lewknor ChurchYe Olde Leathern Bottel

Saturday, January 03, 2009

And so, it ends - 31 December 2008

Supposedly there was only a 25% chance of rain today but the usual sound of heavy rain woke us once again. Does it ever stop raining in Madeira?
Quinta do Palheiro FerreiroQuinta do Palheiro Ferreiro
Nevertheless we set of for Quinta do Palheiro Ferreiro to visit the gardens as they are highly recommended in all the guidebooks. Frankly we were disappointed. At €10 each they were overpriced for the size and what was to be seen compared to gardens in England that charge £10. Admittedly it was winter when gardens are not at their best (but this could be allowed for in a winter admission price). The Blandy family now owns and runs the estate.
Levada dos TornosQuinta do Palheiro Ferreiro

Leaving the gardens we followed the Levada dos Tornos back towards Funchal, leaving it only briefly to visit the Jasmine Tea House, a little piece of England transported to Madeira. The Jesuit ChurchBack on the levada we continued until we were above the Jardin Botanica where we left the levada and made our way back to the centre of town down some impossibly steep streets to finally see Funchal in the sunlight.

Funchal CathedralNew Year's Eve is the big night in Funchal and our hotel roof terrace was ideally placed as a base to view the fireworks without having to tangle with the crowds that throng into Funchal for the big midnight display. That said, the crowds seemed to be much better behaved than New Year's Eve crowds we have experienced elsewhere.
Funchal FireworksFunchal Fireworks
Our Madeiran adventure ended with a bang, but was it worth it? Not really. There are plenty of places in the world more deserving of a visit than this over-priced, over-crowded rock in the middle of the Atlantic. (Madeira has a higher population density than the UK.) Funchal FireworksFunchal FireworksGranted, we did not see it at its best, but for visitors from NZ there really is not enough that is so terribly different to make it worth the rather long detour that is required. That said, it was rather enouraging to visit a place where oxalis appears to be more of a nuisance weed than it was in our NZ gardens.

Done with a passion - 30 December 2008

Street flowersThe weather pundits' pessimistic prediction pertaining to today was a 95% probability of precipitation which precluded our participation in the programme previously planned for the day. So, instead of visiting some gardens further a field with the option of a levada walk, we remained closer to home and followed a tour around the city centre to look at some of the architecture and three churches. The contrast between the lavish interior of the Jesuit church and the plain interior of the circular English church could not be more marked.

Along the way we called in to see the Old Blandy Wine Lodge,Old Blandy Wine Lodge a tourist trap built in one of the original wine premises in Funchal. If your pockets are deep enough you can purchase Madeiran fortified wine bottled in the late 19th century. We did not pay for the tour so did not see the vintages from those years but there were plenty of bottles on display that were as old as us; we did not bother enquiring what the price was.

The Nativity retoldIn the Town Hall we came across a display of nativity scenes that were clearly the results of a competition to make a nativity scene from recycled or waste material; there were some most creative results.

We revisited the markets to see them as they should be and got suckered into buying an exorbitantly Funchal Marketexpensive selection of different flavoured passion fruit. There were seven in the bag, none of which looked like the passion fruit we are used to in NZ. According to the vendor the bag contained one each of lemon, peach, banana, tomato, pineapple and two we could not remember but although they looked quite different the taste was fairly uniform: at a bit over €10 we were well and truly 'had'. The 'tomato' one turned out to be a common old tamarillo that are a dime-a-dozen in NZ.

Orchid bloomThe next disappointment was the Boa Vista Orchid garden. Recommended in the guidebooks and supposedly in the middle of the flowering season, the €4.50 entry was about €3 over what it was worth for a walk around the muddy paths inside some run-down orchid houses with a few blooms on show.