Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Cesky Krumlov – 28 August 2010

Many years ago Russell & Jill told us of a great spot they had discovered in the Czech Republic, Cesky Krumlov. When we visited Prague the connections were not suitable for a side trip so the brochure languished at the bottom of the drawer until recently when, upon re-reading, the fact that the nearest airport was Linz rang a little bell as Ryanair now fly to Linz.

Putting two and two together and a long weekend, we flew on Friday to Linz and drove across the border to Cesky Krumlov. There was little time to do anything on Friday, apart from enjoy a really excellent dinner at Mastal.

Rain was forecast for the whole weekend as a front moved over the central European area, so we were not surprised to wake up on Saturday to a grey day. This seemed an excellent time to visit the castle complex near our hotel. We were able to do an English castle tour in the morning, although it turned out we were the only ones on the tour, for whom English was our first language (including the guide). The castle is huge and the tour a fascinating insight into the history of the area, including one owner who only had a son and heir after 13 years separation from his wife up until the time when the castle was confiscated by the Nazis.

By the time we finished, we were amazed to find the sun shining. This set the theme for the day, sun and clouds alternating, but not the promised rain. As a result, we enjoyed strolling around this very well restored medieval town. About half the town appears to be accommodation, and the remaining half is restaurants and cafes. While the town is extremely well presented at present we did see a display in a shop window of its condition before the restoration work began in the 1960s; it certainly would not have attracted the streams of tourists as it was back then.

In the afternoon we booked to join an English tour of the castle theatre. This is only one of two original baroque theatres left in the world, and it is really quite amazing. The original stage sets, interiors, costumes, music scores and behind the scenes mechanical contraptions to create sound and lighting effects still survive. They do have about six productions here a year, and that would be wonderful to attend. As it was, we found the tour really interesting, and would recommend it. Using only hand-powered wooden machinery the stage-hands could change the complete scene in 10-15 seconds and to this day they have no idea how the stage-hands under the stage controlling the sets and the stage-hands above the action, controlling the back-drops and curtains, coordinated their actions.

Our final tourist activity was to climb the castle tower to enjoy a great view over the castle and town. From many points in the Castle and Tower as well as vantage points along the river, one can watch the brave souls shoot the weir in rubber rafts or canoes. Most enjoy the thrill but every so often some take a spill. There did seem to be a pattern today, canoes with two guys were much more likely to end up upside down than canoes with a male-female crew. It is probably a gung-ho testosterone thing with the all male crews compared to the more cautious approach for those who are likely to be in serious trouble for dumping their female partner in the river. Whatever the reason it provided great entertainment for the land-loving spectators.

Friday's restaurant was recommended by the hotel receptionist; Saturday's restaurant – Krcma Barbakan - was highly recommended by travellers on Trip Advisor. Unfortunately we disagreed with visitors who said it was the best meal they had had in the Czech Republic. They obviously didn't sample the really excellent food we had last night at Mastal.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

In search of heather – 21,22 August 2010

Despite previously going north to Yorkshire and the Peak District in August to see heather blooming, we have never caught it at its best in Sussex, right on London's doorstep. This year we were determined to change that. So, although the forecast was for overcast weather in Sussex on Saturday, we set out, and ran into drizzle before we even arrived. To give the rain a chance to clear, we visited the Priest's House in West Hoathly. This 14th century house was restored 100 years ago, and is a fascinating house/museum. The garden was too damp to explore, so we travelled onto Hartfield for a “cream tea” lunch at 'Pooh Corner'. This delightful town is near where AA Milne lived and wrote his famous children's books.

We were determined to see the heather despite the rain, so drove south from Hartfield, where the heather was looking stunning, through the misty rain. At the top of the hill, where normally there is a lookout, the mist was so thick, we turned round and headed back to London.

On Sunday, the weather forecast was still bad for the south, so we headed north-west for Chorleywood. The common there has a few patches of heather, so we had to be satisfied with that.

Moving on to the Chilterns we had morning tea beside the Pitstone Windmill, the oldest windmill in the British Isles. From there a pleasant drive across the countryside, dotted with lovely villages, brought us to Claydon House. This house appears plain from the outside, but the lavish interiors bankrupted the then owner of the property. The main entry room is full of wooden carved wall and ceiling decorations. The remaining principal rooms have plaster decorations on the walls and ceilings; they are all totally stunning. Now in the care of the NT, although still lived in the descendants of the original family, we were, most unusually, allowed to take photos of the architectural features.

The garden is still cared for by the family, and as we were about to leave, we discovered our own family were visiting at the same time. So it turned out to be a family day for us too!

We travelled on in convoy to another nearby NT house also still lived in by the donor's family. The Rothschild's Ascot House has to be the most stunning weekend retreat we have ever seen. Filled with wonderful art works and priceless Chinese porcelain, it is a really wonderful place to visit. The gardens are equally stunning, and the tree plantings are very picturesque.

Our day ended with a lovely canal-side dinner with Ngaire, Stuart and Laura.

Toad Hall Production – 20 August 2010

The classic favourite of 'Wind in the Willows' has been given a modern twist this year, in the Scoop free theatre in front of City Hall in London.

The situation is significant, as Toad is very amusingly based on the current mayor of London, Boris Johnson and Toad (City) Hall was the back-drop. The similarities were clear, with a look-alike actor in a green wig, reminiscent of Boris's hairstyle, and quite suitable for a toad. There were plenty of political jokes, which would not have registered with the younger members of the audience. Toad of course had to arrive on a bicycle, his current fad, before he moved on to the traditional story lines of a caravan and finally a fast car with accompanying Congestion Charge gag.

We thoroughly enjoyed the show, and will never think of 'Wind in the Willows' in quite the same way again!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

All Hollows – 15 August 2010

After the rain and thunderstorms of the last two days, it was a pleasure to get out in the countryside, and we enjoyed a circular drive starting at Farnham. Despite having twice travelled to the Farnham Airshow, we have never visited this very lovely town before, with its well maintained old buildings, a castle and lots of coffee shops open, even on a Sunday morning.

The next stop was Waverley Abbey, a reminder of the havoc Henry VIII caused in every part of England. Not far from here is a lovely little town called Tilford, which as it's name suggests, is built by a stream, and on both sides of the town are medieval arched bridges.

August is the month for heather, and we found pockets of it flowering everywhere, but particularly around the Frensham Great Pond, which was dug in the 13th century to farm fish for the Bishops of Winchester when they visited Farnham Castle. The other large area of heather was nearby, at the Devils Punch Bowl. This large bowl shaped hollow got its name from the superstition that the devil frequented the area and used it for his exercise.

During the day we walked around several lovely towns, and apart from Farnham, the two we enjoyed most were Haslemere and Godalming. Both are full of wonderful old buildings, and in particular the octagonal shaped old Town Hall in Godalming.

The last stop of the day was a visit to Compton church. This church is so old, pilgrims were stopping there in the 12th century on their walk to Canterbury. The church is unique in England for its double chancel and Norman wooden balcony above the inner chancel. We found it a very special place.

Many parts of today's drive were through hollows, the sunken lanes which are typical of many areas in southern England.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

MG 80th Celebration at Penshurst Place – 8 August 2010

The annual MG SE Car Club picnic is always at Penshurst Place, and this year we were in London, and able to attend. It's a great venue, with plenty of room for the hundreds of cars which join for a great day out.

It was built in the 1340's by Sir John de Pulteney, four times Lord Mayor of London. When King Henry VIII stayed, after being lavishly entertained, he then had his host tried for treason and beheaded, and confiscated the house. It was given in 1552 to the Sidney family, after who Sydney, Australia was named, in a round about way. We enjoyed looking around the house, which certainly has a very old air. The most fascinating rooms were the two tapestry rooms. Two walls were hung with wonderful appliqué-type needlework creations and a chaise-lounge and six chairs were all covered in the same needlework design, Although aged and the chairs were faded, the actual design and effect was stunning. A real inspiration to create something similar! The commentary on the room said it was a unique remnant from the 17th century. It is amazing how some really old furnishing items survive.

The garden are formal, with 11 acres of yew hedged garden 'rooms'. We were fortunate to have just caught the roses at the end of their flowering season. The MG Club made the gardens even more enjoyable, by having a 'treasure hunt' for clues, which was not as easy as we expected. However, we did win third prize for our efforts.

At the end of the day, we made our way home via the neighbouring town of Tonbridge, having previously acquired a Jane Austen walk of the town. The town is lovely, and we thoroughly enjoyed the walk, during which we joined the many people enjoying a performance in the castle grounds. The walk took us to the school Jane's father taught in, the church where they worshiped, as well as various relatives houses. But we were a little surprised to finally read the last statement, at the end of the walk, which said they were not actually sure if Jane ever visited Tonbridge, even though the Austens originally came from here!

Then it was time for a slow and frustrating drive home on the M25, too many people must have headed out of London the enjoy the lovely summer's day.