Tuesday, September 20, 2011

London Open Weekend – 17 September 2011

A quick look on the Web doesn't show any other other countries that have the same Open House weekend scheme as the UK. It is such a brilliant idea, and works very well here, with the hundreds of years of historic building styles.

We headed to the City of London, as the Square Mile has many participating buildings packed into an easy walking area. We managed to visit quite a few, ranging from Trinity House (which is in charge if the country's lighthouses), several livery companies (the best would have to be the Drapers)
and several churches, which are normally closed on the weekends. It is a curious effect of population dynamics that many city churches have no congregations as no one lives nearby, so they are locked on Sundays and open for many different functions during the week.

One of the more unusual places we visited was a hairdresser at Leadenhall Markets. In their basements is a glass door showing part of the original Roman Basilica foundations. So the modern basement is the ground level of Roman times.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Road and Rail - 11 September 2011

We have very vivid memories of watching 9/11 live on TV, as we were new to the UK, and happened to be home, unemployed and unusually had the TV going in daytime. But while the rest of the Western World were remembering 9/11, we were a world away on Sunday with a group of Y Type MG owners. These cars were designed before and built after WWII, so started out in turbulent times.

The day started at the Stondon Transport Museum, one of the largest private collections of cars in the country. It's amazing how many collections there are around the country. This one had a very wide variety of items; cars, bikes, trucks, buses and the slightly more obscure such as a Russian ballistic missile, a Flying Flea, a 1920 street sweeper and a gypsy caravan. But probably, most surprising of all, was a life size replica of Captain Cook's Endeavor, built from the original plans.

An interesting route took us via picturesque villages and minor roads, including one that said 'Not suitable for motor vehicles', a great pub lunch at The Globe, to the Steam Trains at Leighton Buzzard Narrow Gauge Railway.

This rail track was used for sand excavation from the many pits around Leighton Buzzard. Prior to WWII, sand was brought to the UK as ballast, but this was not possible during the war, so sand pits known from as long ago as Roman times, were developed and sand is still exported from here. In particular filtration sand from this area is exported all over the world.

After a ride on the train, there was time for a coffee and we managed to dodge the black rain clouds all the way home, as the remnants of Hurricane Katia edged to northern parts of the UK.

London Festival – 10 September 2011

The annual Mayor's Thames Festival is, not surprisingly, based along the Thames, with lots of activities and previously we have watched the Festival Parade at the conclusion of the weekend. This year we went to see the Dunkirk Little Ships, displayed in the St Katherine's Docks. It was truly amazing to see these relatively small boats, who rescued soldiers from Dunkirk. Some would not have been able to hold many men, but that was the secret of the successful evacuation – all types of boats doing their bit.

The North Bank of the Thames was full of people, out enjoying sunshine, a bonus on a day when rain had been forecast. An extensive street market of stalls selling an excellent range of handcrafts were very tempting as were the many foodstalls which lined the Thames Path. We were very taken by a ship skeleton, built from timber rescued from the Thames, and covered in artwork by school children. The festival is one of Europe's largest free festivals.

The Thames Parade of Boats was due to start at 3pm, so we stood at the end of a pier to get a good look. Something obviously went wrong, as we had enough time to swap life stories with the couples either side of us, before the first boats appeared. Sadly, it was not worth the wait, although it won't put us off waiting for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Pageant boat parade next year.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Euston – 3-4 Septembeer 2011

Many London suburbs are also towns around the UK. We live on the edge of Sudbury, which is a much more attractive town in Suffolk. This weekend we set out to explore the other Euston (also in Suffolk), which for us is the London terminus of our trainline.

Saturday was a reprieve on summer, and we enjoyed a glorious day of sunshine, exploring the Suffolk area around Euston. Starting in Bury St Edmund for lunch, we had a stroll through their Abbey gardens, and agreed with the banners proclaiming 'Bury in Bloom'. The flower beds were a riot of colour.

We also visited the Royal Theatre, which is the last Regency Theatre left in England. It was opened in 1819, and was restored a few years ago. Much smaller than current theatres, it was an interesting glimpse into the past.

After Bury, we next stopped at the lovely little town of Woolpit, which has a stunning church, with a 15th century wooden hammer-beam ceiling, liberally decorated in angels with their wings outstretched.

Pakenham was next, with the distinction of two working mills left near the town. A five story windmill and a watermill, where we stopped for tea and homemade grapefruit drizzle-cake made from flour ground on the premises – delicious.

Euston followed, with a range of lovely estate houses. The 'big house' was not open until Sunday, so we planned a repeat visit. Thetford is just up the road, and quite a a pleasant town, which in 1066 (Norman Conquest)was the sixth most important town in England. It is now a town of has-beens.
All that is left of the castle (built at the time William the Conqueror) is the 80ft mound. There were several priories and other church buildings, a picturesque reminder of the nunnery is the three nuns bridges. Henry VIII's reforms of course played their part in reducing this important town to a collection of ruins.

From here on, our circular route took us through the Thetford forest, with lovely areas of heather, which must do well in the very sandy soil..

On Sunday we paid a repeat visit to Helmingham Hall Gardens, as these would have to be one of our favourite discoveries in this country. There is such a timeless tranquillity about the huge Tudor mansion and the Grade I listed gardens, also residing in their own moat.
The gardens appeared to be under the watchful guard of a large bull with enormous horns, who stood steadfastly by the gate. But he appeared to just be bemused by the warm sunshine, and gave no trouble.

Euston Hall finally opened at 2.30pm. It was a surprisingly simple homely house, despite the grand connections of the family who have always owned it. Decended from Charles II, with a Prime Minister, an Admiral who is recognised as inventing the first weather 'station'.
In the archives room, a newspaper article said the family tree read like a Who's Who of England. The tearooms was like stepping back in time too, as a fiver got two cups of tea and two delicious homemade large pieces of cake.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Pierrefonds – 29 August 2011

BBC TV has had several series on Merlin and Prince Arthur as young men, set in a most stunning medieval castle, with amazing turrets etc. When we planned to take a week in France, we checked the Web to see where this castle might be, and discovered it was in Pierrifonds, just north-east of Paris. This seemed a good place for our last night.

We had hoped to pack up our tent after visiting the castle, which helpfully opened at 9.30am. But the grumpy 'dragon' in the camp office was adamant the the 'regulations' did not permit us leaving the tent beyond 10am. So although we would have liked a totally dry tent for our last morning, we had to make do with a nearly dry tent.

The castle is massive, originally built in the 14th century by Louis d'Orleans, it fell into disrepair until Napoleon I bought it and his nephew Napoleon III restored it in the 19th century. So a lot of flamboyant details were added, but the effect is still quite medieval. Somehow the filmmakers have avoided the more modern additions, to give a strictly medieval look.

We enjoyed our dinner beside a lake, overlooking the castle on Sunday night, so returned for a goats cheese salad for lunch, after the castle visit. Then we set of north for Calais, stopping off first at Compiegne. This town was where Joan of Arc was captured in 1430, it also has a palace designed as a summer holiday home for Louis XV and restored by Napoleon I. The town is really beautiful , full of substantial houses.

Close by is a very interesting historical spot, where the Armistice was signed, in a railway carriage on tracks running through a dense forest, at 11:00 on 11 November 1918 to end World War I. The carriage was preserved, with the table and the original chairs used by the various generals when signing the treaty. In 1940, Hitler staged a triumphant ceremony when the French surrendered to him, using the same railway carriage (at that stage a memorial in the forest clearing), sat in General Foch's seat, generally made the French eat humble-pie and took the railway carriage to Germany in triumph! Fortunately things changed five years later, but sadly, the original carriage was mostly destroyed in a fire.
The museum houses an identical carriage from the same railway company, and it is set out as it was when the WWI treaty was signed. The whole museum is very interesting, particularly the stereoscopic pictures they have, of all aspects of WWI. They must have about 50 of these, the quality off the pictures is incredible, and the photographers were not at all squeamish. To see pictures of the soldiers in trenches, medical operations, aeroplane accidents, and bombed villages made the war very real. We found the bombed village scenes very moving, as we had just driven through dozens of villages with their lovely old churches and cute houses; to be faced with such a massive rebuilding task and achieve it so successfully is amazing.

North-east of there is Noyon. This humble town boasts a huge cathedral. This one dates from 1150, but four previous cathedrals stood on this site, and this was where Charlemagne was crowned. The cathedral was a real contrast to our visit to Chartres yesterday. Not at all graceful, simple windows, in fact solid and ugly from the outside, and just plain massive inside.
There were two things of particular interest. A memorial for the allied soldiers in WWI, including a New Zealand Shield. The moving words 'To the memory of one million dead of the British Empire, of whom the greater part rest in France' really made it even more tragic. Behind the cathedral is a unique half timbered library.

From here it was north to Calais, passing by a series WWI War Cemeteries, and attractive villages. We wondered how many of these were in ruins after WWI, as we were driving right through the heart of the Somme battlefields.

Chartres and beyond – 28 August 2011

The '24 Hour Circuit' museum opened at 10am, so we got there at opening time, and found it interesting, and then took the 11am minivan tour of the circuit, including the famous Dunlop Bridge, grandstands, control room, pit stop and workshop area.
There was a small team of cars practising, so that gave a feel of the race excitement. The tour leaflet showed the 13.6km 24-hour circuit included public roads, so this was probably the best discovery of the tour, and we enjoyed driving the public road sections of the circuit, about 60% of the route.

Although we have visited Chartres before, it is right on the way to Pierrefonds, so we stopped again. After all, the UNESCO protected cathedral in Chartres is quite awesome. Originally building began in 1020, mostly burnt down in 1194, it then survived the 100 Year War, French Revolution and both World Wars (although all the glass in the windows was removed during both World Wars).

The windows are amazing, donated by aristocracy, royalty and priests in the early 13th century, the detail in the fine 176 stain glass windows tells Bible stories and glimpses of daily life. If that was not enough, around the Choir are Bible stories illustrated in carved stone. This is referred to as the 'Bible in stone'. If you were to study each window, it would be a very long visit indeed. We unfortunately had limited time, so only allowed an hour, plus a walk around the historic centre.

Our destination of Pierrefonds took us on a ring road around Paris. We were unsure how slow this would be late afternoon on a Sunday, with locals returning from the weekend, but it proved to be very easy, with signs saying 'Perif fluide', although the other direction was at a standstill. This was definitely a time for the stressless guidance of a GPS. It was fun to drive along a section of the Seine with the Eiffel Tower a short distance away.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

24 hours of Le Mans – 27 August 2011

The morning was a total contrast to the day before, with brilliant sunshine. Our route to Le Mans went straight through the centre of the Loire Valley. We have visited here previously, but it is such a beautiful area, it was a pleasure to have a second visit. We decided to visit the gardens of Villandry again, as these were the highlight of our previous visit.
The gardens are laid out in a similar to the monk's gardens around their abbeys. All the vegetables are grown inside neatly ordered box hedges. Standard rose bushes around the gardens represent the monks at work. In front of the chateaux is a more formal box hedge garden, where each geometrical pattern tells a story – about love.

The grounds are extensive with more formal gardens behind, viewing platforms and a new gardens since we were last there – a sun garden full of gold, orange and yellow flowers; and a cloud garden with blue and silver flowers.

We passed a few more chateaux on our way north, before arriving at Le Mans. Murray was keen to visit the town, because of it's racing fame, but the town itself is also well worth a visit. The approach to the old town was past part of the original Roman city walls, said to be the best left in France, we were certainly impressed.
The Tourist Office staff were most helpful and gave us a map of the town, information on the 'Le Mans 24 Hour Race Circuit' and nearest camp site, 5k out of town. After admiring the old town, Cite Plantagenet, we found the campground and put up the wet shell of our tent. Unfortunately there was no food at the local village, so back to town we went.
This time, a poster on a large tower caught our eye, clearly they had buildings illuminated at night. The Tourist Office was still open, and told us it started at 9.30pm and lasted two hours. We had not paid the €20 deposit for a barrier pass at the campground, as we had expected to be home well before then, as we still had to finish setting up camp.
So while Christine researched the restaurant menus and made a selection, Murray went back to get a barrier pass. The office was most unhelpful and refused him one, saying the gate was locked at 10pm and a key did not allow entry. He tried to explain about the illuminations, but they couldn't/wouldn't understand.

Murray retuned empty handed and we set off for dinner, with the curfew time of 10pm to work to. By having time to research, we were able to avoid the obvious tourist traps, and found a small restaurant tucked away, with a good looking menu and much more reasonably priced than the tourist traps. It turned out to be another gourmet highlight. We explained our time constraint to the waiter, and he was extremely helpful in making sure we left in time. Our car was parked in front of the cathedral, so we were able to watch 5 minutes of illuminations there, before heading back to the camp ground.

As is always the way, when under pressure, we missed a turning, found the alternative road had a 'route barree' sign, then took a long way round that and got back about two minutes to ten. With the car in front of the barrier arm, there was no movement of the barrier, the office was closed, so no help there, a barrier card was clearly required for access.
We needed the car beside the tent to pump up the air-bed, so took the only option we had – manually, the barrier would lift up about 100mm, this was enough for our low sports car to sneak underneath! There are times when a lack of French can prove a problem! We discovered that at 10 pm, actual metal gates closed across the driveway, effectively locking the drive to all, including card-holders. But why she refused to sell a card, when she was about to close the office at 7.30pm, and Murray was obviously going out, is a mystery!