28 March 2011

And they are off,,,the 157th Boat Race!

Late March in London brings out the crowds lining the banks of the Thames to watch The Boat Race which has now been staged for 157 years! It's a strange event as it has no overall sporting significance as it's not part of any rowing event, no points are gained, it doesn't lead to anything but it amazingly popular and its longevity speaks for itself. Oxford and Cambridge universities field a team each and they race from Putney Bridge to Chiswick Bridge in a mad dash that lasts around 17 minutes. We went to the start in Bishops Park about an hour before the 5pm set off and only just secured a vantage point as both banks of the river we packed with thousands of spectators. . It all dates back to 1829 when it was started by 2 school friends who each went on to one of the 2 universities and has been held every year since 1856, except for the two world wars. The teams both wear blue but importantly Oxford are dark blue and Cambridge light blue. This year Oxford won relatively easily after such a cracking start that they were ahead even when they reached us just a few minutes from the starting line. They flew past in a blur of blues jerseys, showing incredible power and they were so fast the the flotilla of following boats had to rev up to keep close to them. Til next year then! Photos show: the warm up racers getting into their boat; crowds finding a good vantage point on the roof opposite us; the 2 teams approach us just after the start - have a look at the crowds on the river bank!; the teams zoom past us and you can see Oxford are already leading; the chasing flotilla: and, the crowds left after the race had past us - they all went to watch the big screen so got to see the rest of the race happen. One of the great delights of living in Notting Hill is the number of cinemas we have (4!) and that we have some historic, quirky ones too. On Saturday we went to the Coronet on Notting Hill Gate which has gone for an all red interior look - see photo! It's a place with history and famous among locals for being one of the last cinemas to allow smoking - in the upstairs section. It was opened in 1898 as a Victorian theatre and was considered one of the finest outside of the West End. It became a full time cinema in 1923 and claims to be the oldest in London, It now tends to attract the phrase 'faded grandeur' but shows good films at reasonable prices and you can even sit in the circle, from where the photo was taken, for a much better experience than many small screens can offer. We saw 'Limitless' which despite its title, was not as good as we hoped...... For film buffs, this is the cinema used for the scene in 'Notting Hill' where Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant watch a film, and Hugh has his prescription diving mask on which still makes me laugh after many viewings!

23 March 2011

The Olympic countdown is on!

Last week saw the kick off of the 500 day countdown to the start of the London 2012 Olympics - which sounds like a lot of days still to go but it'll soon be here and the excitement is bubbling up. The railway station St Pancras unveiled a set of huge Olympic rings for everyone to see as they arrive on Eurostar tho' possibly a little cruel to the French who lost out in hosting 2012 and this is the first thing they will see when reaching London!

The BT Tower gave us a sound and light show with a big 500 days sign, a countdown and then huge louc fireworks which were brilliant but lasted a really short time - sign of the times perhaps! Still it was fun and I was interviewed live on BBC Radio London so I could tell Londoners all about it - fame at last! One final Olympics happening was the unveiling of the clock set up in Trafalgar Square which is counting down to the Olympics in days, hours, minutes and seconds. It's proving a hit with visitors who all wanted their photo taken in front of it!

Spring has sprung in London so we booked ourselves for lunch into one of the buildings with the best views over this great city. The top floor of the Hilton Park Lane has a bar on one side and a Galvin brothers restaurant on the other. My cheeky request for 'the table with the best view possible' worked and we were given a large round table overlooking Hyde Park. The sun was so bright that the photos are not all that great (sorry about that) but you can see the huge expense of Hyde Park, the iconic Battersea Power Station, the back door of Buckingham Palace (good to be nosey!), a view over the City including the ever growing Shard tower and a quick snap of the outside so you know what the building looks like if you ever get a chance to visit. The food is great too and they do a wonderful special lunch deal which doesn't break the bank, especially as they thrown in a free glass of champagne. It was a long lunch as you can imagine.....!

14 March 2011

London is full of surprises!

London is full of surprises even when you think you know it very well! We found a new local theatre hidden away and I had the fun of visiting Kensington Gardens to show a friend a hidden away restaurant and the wonderful art on show in the trees. One other very surprising find was the Mediatheque, a place you can watch films about London for free!

Just around the corner is a row of former shops and something that looked like a run down workshop which we've always ignored and then we heard that a new theatre had opened there so we had to go and explore! They were staging A Snake in the Grass by Alan Ayckbourn and had some pretty good names in it so we ventured into the alley way with curious excitement! We entered an amazing room which had the full set for the play in the middle of the audience. This play is centres on a disused tennis court so there in front of us were the remains of a tennis surface, an old net and a run down umpires chair. The play was really good and the cast featuring Susan Wooldridge and Sarah Woodward were excellent. The smallness of the venue added extra atmosphere and we are looking forward to their next production. Added fun came from meeting Susan Wooldridge afterwards as the cast were drinking in the Commander opposite - the theatre doesn't have its own bar so gives 15% off vouchers for the Commander so everyone decamps there before and after the show.

Photos: the outside and the tennis court set.

What to do if you have a spare hour on London's South Bank? Why not pop into Mediatheque which is part of the British Film Institute (BFI) and is a hidden treat. You go in, they ask if you've been before and how long you want to spend there and then patiently explain how to you it and you sit in a comfy seat with you own flat screen and off you go. The archive is all yours and they have thousands of films and documentaries to chose from. I looked for old film of London and saw; post war workers' day trips to London from the Midlands and was amazed at how much they managed to pack into one day; turn of the century views of the docks in full swing; and, clips of the bomb damage immediately after the Second World War. I was overwhelmed by the choice and quantity of material and will definitely go back and yes, it's free!

Hidden art treasures and a restaurant tucked away are my last two treats for this blog. In Kensington Gardens just by the Palace is the Orangery which dates from the 18th century and is the former garden ballroom for the palace. It is a beautiful building, now a cafe serving wonderful snack and cakes with a terrace which is a delight in the summer. We were there on our way to enjoy the Anish Kapoor outdoor pieces, tucked into the ponds and trees of the gardens, before they were due to depart in the next few days. There are 4 pieces in all and a previous blog featured a couple but we explored them all again as they are so good. The 4 are: the reflective World Upside down which reverses the audience on one side; the triangular piece which reminded me of a witch's hat; a red circle; and, some way away, a silver disk. These disks reflect the sky and you watch the clouds move across their faces and see birds pass through the disk too. We found them mesmerising and they seemed to attract the swans too!

Photos: Anish Kapoor's 4 pieces; a beautiful swan; and, the Orangery exterior and interior (including cakes!)

Enough secrets from London for now!

8 March 2011

Tea tasting, toe tapping and book reading in London!

I know I'm always saying that London offers the most amazing range of experiences, often just on your doorstep and this week's blog shows that my last 7 days have been no exception. I've picked just 3 highlights: tea tasting, book readings and a bit of jazzy fun.

First tea tasting. In Notting Hill a man called Pei Wang has set up the ground floor of his house as a calm refuge to taste and learn about tea. He is absolutely charming and a group of 4 us tried out his Saturday morning one hour tasting event, which is free - amazing! He's so enthusiastic that it lasted rather more than an hour and we tried 3 lovely new teas, my favourite being Dong Ding Oolong so I bought a whole packet to enjoy at home. He explains all about the teas you taste and can answer any question you may have about the ceremony itself and the teas' properties including even the right sort of water to use. His knowledge is endless and we learned so much about what seems such a simple drink when you bung a tea bag into a mug! Here it is about taking your time and savouring the tea and choosing one for its taste but also being aware of the benefits that different teas bring to your health.

In his Chaya Teahouse you can have afternoon tea or try one of his tea appreciation classes or master classes (with great good) and I guarantee you will feel a million miles away from the hurly burly of your busy life after an hour or so in this tranquil hideaway. I could even manage a trip to the madness of Oxford Street afterwards without too much angst!

Look up Pei Wang at http://www.teanamu.com/. The photos show Pei himself, pouring my tea into delicate cups, his house and the tea tasting table set up for us.

Friday night was World Book Night in Trafalgar Square and I went down to find out what it was all about. The square was all lit up with a large stage set up so we gathered waiting to see what would happen. World Book Night is a major event to encourage more reading and on the next day the organisers were galvanising a huge number of volunteers to give away a million books to get people started! The Friday event was a great part of this celebration of reading as a whole host of top authors and famous folk were reading a small piece from a favourite book and it was captivating. Reading ranged from their own books to Dickens to a piece about a bad hangover, read by our very own Mayor Boris Johnson! I also saw: Alan Bennett, Rupert Everett, DBC Pierre, Sarah Waters, Andrea Levy, Mark Haddon....... all hosted by Graham Norton and here are photos of some of them and the square. It's in the diary for next year already and I want more - it was such a treat to hear such great readings on a dry but chilly March night surrounded by fellow book fans.
And finally, the toe tapping! Kensington Roof Gardens was the swanky venue for a great jazz night starring Rebecca Poole. The Roof Gardens are just that, being a huge outdoor space on the top of a former department store with Spanish, English and Monet style sections (most famous for their flamingos who were not to be seen on a chilly night) and luckily a large marquee section too so we were indoors. I know Rebecca and she is great fun to go and see with her warm personality, husky jazz voice and great range of songs - her own compositions and covers. We even had a quick twirl together at the end of one song when she joined in the dancing on the floor! I've seen her many times and she just gets better and better so keep an eye open for her next show....

Bye for now,