Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wren in London - 19-20 February 2011

Winter in London is the time to visit some of the excellent free Museums. This weekend we combined two museums with free London walks, available on the Web. These walks give clear instructions and very interesting historical information. Both walks featured buildings designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who was the architect who was responsible for rebuilding much of London after the great fire in 1666.

The Museum of London opened an exhibition of 'London Street Photography' today, and as we wanted to visit the Museum again and this seemed the ideal occasion. We decided to do a self guided walk around the area as well, starting at Tower Hill. This was an fascinating reminder of architectural treasures scattered inside the Square Mile. Lunch was at the Ye Olde Watling pub, built in 1668 by Christopher Wren, to house the workmen building the new St Paul's after the fire of London. The pub is apparently built out of ship timbers, and definitely worth a visit. We'll have to eat there again.

By the time we arrived at the Museum of London, the place was heaving with people. We have visited several times before, and always found it quiet and deserted. Perhaps the combination of school holidays and the 'London Street Photography' exhibition opening day, made the difference. We decided to return earlier in the day for the exhibition, when we discovered the queue was well past the one hour to go marker. The Museum has recently complete face-lift, so we fought the crowds to have a look.

The walk finished at St Paul's (Wren's greatest achievement), and we were able to visit the One New Change shopping centre opposite. The roof top terrace has wonderful views towards the London Eye, and will be great in summer when the roof top garden cafe is open.
Sunday was still bleak and cold, but we decided on a walk around Chelsea, having been very taken with the area last weekend. Another welcoming London pub made great lunch stop (our table was right beside the open fire), in the middle of our walk as we went past houses that had been home to prominent writers in the past.

Our Museum visit of the day was the Army Museum, which had really excellent displays. Unlike the London Museum yesterday, this Museum was quiet and easy to enjoy the very comprehensive history of British conflicts – mostly abroad. One of the current temporary exhibitions was 'The Road to Kabul' and the banner advertising it outside had a most interesting quote by Frederick Roberts in 1880 regarding the first Afghan War - 'I feel sure I am right when I say that the less the Afghans see of us, the less they will dislike us'. It could have been written in 2011.

Next door to the Museum is the grand complex built by Sir Christopher Wren, as home to retired army personal, known as the Chelsea pensioners. This is the Royal Hospital Chelsea. The grounds are open to the public at certain times, as is the Great Hall and Chapel. It was like stepping back in time and visiting a village within London. Unfortunately the Chapel was closed, but the Great Hall is where the pensioners have their meals, and tables were being set for the evening meal. It is a very grand dining hall and it was easy to see the Wren look everywhere.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

London Transport – 12-13 February 2011

The London transport system forms an integral part of life when living in London so this weekend we explored London with transport as the theme.
As we live on a joint Underground/Overground line, we decided to do a circuit of London on the Overground, incorporating the recently completed Overground extension. There are many well known names on the line, such as Whitechapel & Canada Water, with the line terminating at West Croydon.

From here the tramlink (installed 2000 and the only tram in London) took us to Wimbledon where the District Line brought us back to the Overground again. A side excursion (before re-boarding the Overground) took us to the Chelsea Physic Garden. This had a special winter opening for snowdrops. Rather than extensive areas of snowdrops, the snowdrop trail taught us all about snowdrops and the various varieties.

Sunday was the perfect day for indoor activities, so after a wonderful choral service at the historic Temple Church, we spent the afternoon at the London Transport Museum. They have a fascinating history of London transport with many vehicles on display, situated in the beautiful ex-flower market at Covent Garden. Currently, there is an exhibition on building the Overground extension, which was rather appropriate. Interestingly it incorporates the tunnel built under the Thames by Brunel – the first tunnel in the world to be built under a major city river and a bridge which took the largest crane in England to lift it into position.
Nearby the Museum, the Bafta awards were getting organised, but it was not a pleasant evening to be walking the red carpet nor to be a technician working on the outside broadcast trucks. It was amazing to see the miles and miles of cables snaking around the venue – all hidden from the camera view – all to beam it live to doting audiences around the world. Anyone would think it was important!

A railway ticket allows 2 for 1 entry into many attractions, so we used this to visit the Transport Museum and Chelsea Physic Gardens.

Monday, February 07, 2011

From Snowdrop Tea to Michelin Stars – 5-6 February 2011

Winter seems much shorter in the UK, as first it's the lead up to Christmas, and only a month after Christmas, the snowdrops are appearing, and give the hint of spring not far away.

February is snowdrop time again, and in contrast to the cold weather last weekend, we enjoyed a walk in the Chilterns on Saturday, which started in Watlington, and featured Swyncombe Church on the walk. The churchyard is smothered in snowdrops, and for the first three weekends in February, the local folk host a Snowdrop Tea in the churchyard. This 11th century Norman church was dedicated to 7thC St Botolph, whose casket rested in Swyncombe on it's journey to the Abbeys in Ely, Peterborough and Westminster. It was fascinating, as we have visited each of these grand Abbeys, to know the connection to this out of the way church hidden in a valley, down a drive-way off a side-road, off a minor road. However, at the time it was on a major “highway”, the Ridgeway, a long-distance trail that snakes across this part of England.

Our end point of Watlington is worth exploring as well. The town is full of 15th and 16th century buildings. The High Street has a lovely cafe, tempting cookware shops and an excellent delicatessen - impossible not to sample!

On Sunday we decided to celebrate our wedding anniversary at Waterside, a three Michelin star restaurant on the banks of the Thames in Bray, near Windsor.

Bray is another appealing village, which supports two three star restaurants. The head chef told us Waterside is fully booked every day for lunch and dinner, obviously the recession has not impacted the seriously good restaurants.

We and our car were taken care of when we stopped outside. I think we were passed from hand to hand through at least five staff members, from car to table. Each was courteous, attentive and wished us a good dining experience.

It goes without saying that this is an expensive experience, but worth it for a special occasion. What really made this special, was a tour of the kitchen. Alain Rous, the Chef Patron came to shake hands personally with each diner, and as we had read on the Web that guests were welcome to inspect the kitchens, we asked him if this would be possible. He stopped his hand-shaking tour at that point, and personally showed us round, and explained each part of the kitchen complex. It was fascinating to see items we had eaten in the preparation stage.

The kitchen has 24 chefs and supporting staff for the 75 covers (average) , the restaurant must have at least 20 waiting staff, so no wonder it all goes so smoothly, and we were made so welcome.

On leaving, the Restaurant manager said goodbye to us at the door, and when he learnt we had come to celebrate our anniversary, presented us with a copy of their dessert recipe book. This is an anniversary to be treasured, and hopefully remembered when back in NZ recreating delicious deserts!

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Winter Wanders – 29 & 30 January 2011

London's Mayor generously paid for a wide selection of walks this weekend, so anyone could participate for free. I wonder how many other major cities could have such a large number of interesting walks.

The walk on Saturday afternoon called “ Spies and Spy-catchers” was led by a guide who used to work for MI2. Nearly 100 people joined the walk, which was really excellent. We walked past places in the St James area where the various Military Intelligence operations were run during the war, learnt about the notorious spies, Philby, Burgess, McLean & Blunt, as well as other really interesting historical happenings.

On Sunday morning we joined a walk called “Subterranean London”, with another very humorous guide. We learnt about what moves beneath London pavements, and underground history.

Just near the end of the morning walk, we came across the English Civil War Society, who were holding their annual remembrance of the execution of King Charles I.
The walk we joined on Sunday afternoon was “Hidden Treasures”. This should really have been called “a walk along the Thames”, but as it was a beautiful afternoon, we didn't mind learning about the various buildings that line the banks of the Thames between Waterloo and Tower Bridge.

The Winter Wanders were part of the Mayor's three seasons of sponsored walks. We'll have to look out for the spring walks.