Friday, December 24, 2010

Snow in the countryside - 19 December 2010

The snow finished on Saturday as abruptly as it began, and left a thick white blanket over the whole Greater London area. Surprisingly, the trains out of London were all running, so we decided to head for the countryside by train, to enjoy the snow.

Sevenoaks is a pleasant town, south-east of London, just outside the M25. The fast train got us there in 30 minutes from central London, and after looking around the snowy town, we enjoyed walking around the National Trust property of Knole. The large Tudor mansion was closed for winter, but the park is open to visitors, and it was brilliant to walk around some of the park, watching the deer apparently oblivious to the cold, trying to find some nourishment beneath the snow. Families were out with sleds and toboggans, enjoying the wide open slopes.

A hot pub meal was the perfect way to fortify ourselves for the train trip back home.

Boots and ballet pumps – 18 December 2010

10 to 20cm of snow was forecast to arrive today in the Greater London area. We had a behind-the-scenes tour of the Coliseum booked at 11.30am, so made sure we arrived early just in case the transport system broke down.

The snow was very slight as we started the tour, but by the time it finished an hour later, there was nearly 10cm settled on the ground. The tour was really interesting, as we have attended many performances at the Coliseum over the years. We learnt the interesting history of the building, constructed in 1904 and the story behind unique features of the original style of entertainment. The aim was to bring ancient Rome to London, so the shape of the theatre and the lavish decorations reflect that.

After the tour, we enjoyed walking around central London as it continued snowing. The normal Christmas crowds were not in evidence, so there was plenty of fresh, clean snow.
The novelty had not worn off when we headed back to the Coliseum for the matinee show, but it was good to head into the warmth. We've never considered boots to be suitable footwear for the theatre before, but were very glad we had been sensible and, not surprisingly, many people seemed to be there in walking shoes.
But onstage, it was all ballet pumps, and the fun of the Nutcracker. We had seen a modern interpretation previously at the Coliseum, but this year's production of the Nutcracker took a more traditional approach; both versions were very enjoyable.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Touring the fens – 12 December 2010

The previous evening's red sky proved right, and we enjoyed a circular tour around an area of the fens, north of Bourne. It was easy to see that this area had been snow bound recently, and as we did the tour, many minor roads still had icy snow covering them. Fortunately others had travelled them already, so we felt confident to follow. A white ribbon of road seemed much more picturesque to follow, than endless grey.

The first cute village was Irnham, with lovely cottages and a frozen village pond. From here we drove north to Sleaford, which has the oldest church stone spire in England, and excellent coffee! Nearby is Heckington, which has the only eight sailed windmill in the UK.

Travelling around the fens we came to the church in Gosberton where one of the gargoyles is an elephant. We wondered how they even knew about elephants when this was built. The vicar wasn't able to help us with the age of the gargoyles, but did direct us to the back of the church to see an unusual decoration. He didn't explain what it was, so it took some searching, but we found it - a man mooning, the stone mason must have had a sense of humour! A grotesque in every sense of the word.

The highlight of the day was a visit to see Belvoir Castle decorated for Christmas, but on the way we detoured to revisit the Clipsham Yew Hedge. The has an annual clip in September, and consequently was looking even better than our last visit Easter 2006

The castle looked marvellous in the gloom of a late winter afternoon, mainly lit with the twinkling lights of many Christmas trees. There are many stunning rooms in this large castle, but our favourite would have to be the ladies drawing room; this elegant room looked really appealing. Choirs were performing in many rooms; combined with the lights and Christmas decorations, it was quite magical.

Bridges & Churches of English counties – 11 December 2010

Everywhere we visit in England is steeped in history. This weekend we kept meeting references to Hereward the Wake and also King John. There are names like these that we have heard of, but would be hard pushed to give a synopsis of their lives.

We took the scenic route on our way to Stamford for the weekend. Stamford is a delightful stone town at the northern end of the Cotswold Stone seam and is much loved by period film directors. The route we took passed through several similar styles of towns, although on a smaller scale. First, Titchmarch, with it's stylish church surrounded by a ha-ha, normally seen around a country home. Then Oudle, a lovely town with a prestigious boys school owed by the Worshipful Company of Grocers, many cafes and today a street market selling country delights like rabbit or game bird pies.

The final town in this series before we arrived at Stamford, was Wansford. A curving stone bridge unites the two halves of this picturesque town.

From Stamford we drove a circular tour along the edge of the fens (large flat areas, where the frequent church spires stand out like beacons), to Crowland. We have previously enjoyed visiting this lovely old town with two special items of interest; the remains of a triangular medieval bridge, and the abbey. The current church is in one isle of the old ruined abbey. It is this church that had the first peal of bells installed in about 986, the ropes are the longest in the country and these bells were the first to be broadcast on radio in 1923.

We really enjoyed our delicious lunch in the 'Old Copper Kettle' tearooms in Crowland where they quote an airman who met his girlfriend there during WWII and said it was a “place where we both felt secure and could be ourselves”.

Not far from here is another abbey incorporated into the present church at Thorney. The town has the main street lined with model workers cottages built by the Duke of Bedford to house his workers.

We finished the day in Stamford, enjoying exploring the narrow streets and shops decorated for Christmas, and were inspired by the sunset to rework the old saying – red vapour trails at night; motorists delight.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Christmas Country House – 5 December 2010

After the heavy snowfalls for much of the week (heaviest snowfall in southern London for 120 years), the weekend was milder, and Sunday absolutely glorious in the sunshine. It was just the day to visit a grand country residence, decorated for Christmas.

Basildon Park is a beautifully restored country house. It gave an idea of what it would be like to be invited to a country Christmas houseparty.

We drove home through the Chilterns, stopping for lunch in Pangbourne, besides the Thames. From here we went over the private toll bridge, costing a whole 40p, to meander home through Thames-side towns.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Chiltern Run – 28 November 2010

One of our MG Club friends organised his own Chiltern's run, ending up at Windsor. We think we know the Chilterns quite well, so were amazed to find all sorts of new back roads, we have never discovered before. Fortunately the ice hadn't reached this part of the country yet, and we had no worries negotiating the narrow roads.

Enroute we stopped at the Bishop Shopping Centre, and were very tempted in a beautiful furniture shop, by a brilliant array of wall plaques. We were seriously thinking of buying one, when the shop assistant said in a sales clinching fashion - “Yes, they are imported all the way from New Zealand”. We still admired the plaque just was much, but it actually seemed silly to pay twice to freight it around the world!!

We ended the day in Windsor, just as the daylight ended, and it was the perfect time to end our outing with a meal at a pub on the High Street.

A Record Day – 27 November 2010

When we realised today was the All Black's test match against Wales, we decided this was one of those “101 things to do before we retire”. By checking online, we found a company who offered a day return bus trip to Cardiff, with tickets for the game.

We were not sure how it would work out, as the closer we got to the weekend, the more pessimistic the weather reports became. So we set out from London with plenty of extra warm clothing, and as predicted by the BBC weather report, we hit snow before we had got 50 miles from London. Fortunately it was not heavy like the north half of the country, and we made it safely to Wales. It was obvious that Cardiff had had a substantial snowfall the previous day, and although it was cold, the sun was making it reasonably pleasant.

“German” Christmas markets had invaded the town centre, which was great, as all the pubs, restaurants and cafes were chocka with queues out the door for some! So we enjoyed a takeaway duckburger with a mug of hot mulled wine, with the pleasant company of a local couple who had come to town for the game too.

The Millennium stadium is impressive, in fact, we read that the NZ coach thinks it the best stadium in the world. We went in to enjoy the pre-game singing, as the temperatures were dropping outside. Fortunately we didn't need all the warm clothing we'd brought, as the roof was closed for the game. No one seemed to know if the roof would be open or closed, as we were told this decision is made by the participating teams. We were glad they choose to close it, as it was still fairly cold even so, and we sat through the match wearing scarves, hats and gloves.

The game was great, even though the All Blacks didn't seem in best form for the first half. At one stage it got quite tense as it seemed we may not walk away the the records we were hoping to witness. But all was well, and Dan Carter broke the world record for the most points scored, and the All Blacks made their record of a 75% winning average, which is better than any team in any sporting discipline.

The amazingly lovely thing about a rugby game in the UK is the friendly rivalry between spectators of the opposing teams, unlike Football, where the stands are segregated with barriers and police are required to break up fights and keep opposing supporters separated outside the stadia to avoid violence.

The bus trip back also got rather tense towards the end, as our last train left the drop-off point at 11.51pm. Fortunately we made it with five minutes to spare. The alternative route home using three busses had very little appeal on a freezing cold winter's night!