30 May 2011

A royal palace and a fairy tale hotel

If you hop on a train for a mere 20 minutes you can see a royal palace turned art deco glory and back in London, a wonderful railway hotel has been returned to its former glory and it's magical (well it was in Harry Potter!)

The royal palace is Eltham Palace which was home to many King Henrys including Henry V111 and his daughter Elizabeth 1st. This magnificent medieval building then fell into disuse and the great hall was used as a barn for animals at one stage! Luckily people saw sense and a renovation project was funded by the government in the early 1900s. Then the Courtauld family bought the site and built a wonderful art deco mansion onto the great hall. No photos are allowed inside the building but trust me the art deco touches are amazing and the whole place takes you back to another era and one that was full of luxury and style. The Courtaulds held grand parties the great medieval hall and when they moved out after the Second World War, the armed forces used the place for a training venue - what a place to be posted! Luckily now it's back to its art deco best and well worth a visit. There are fabulous grounds too and you can even see the London skyline to prove how near you are!

The photos are: the entrance to the art deco home; the beautiful gardens, the medieval hall; and, the view back to the London skyline.

May saw the opening of the wonderfully refurbished St Pancras hotel, formerly the Midland Hotel which was built in 1870s. It fell into decay and was another fine building almost lost and was nearly demolished but a feisty band of campaigners including Sir John Betjemen fought to keep it safe. It's been under development for as long as I can remember and we've waited in anticipation as first the station opened and now finally the hotel and restaurant. It is a mad gothic masterpiece with all the luxury you'd want from a top hotel. As a Londoner it's wonderful to see it as a working building again sitting proudly among London's fine sites. The restaurant does it justice with top chef Marcus Wareing cooking up great British food and there is a bar as well as a foyer lounge where you feel close to the action of the station with the design themes of St Pancras carried through. After lunch (well I had to try it out didn't it?) I went for a wander around but you can also book guided tours.

Photos are: the magnificent exterior of the hotel (x2); the restaurant entrance; view from the hotel across the station with the Olympic rings and the champagne bar; the amazing interior staircase; and, the Gilbert Scott restaurant.

I also sneaked a few days in France last week but now it's officially summer in London so I'm looking forward to the coming week.

Bye for now,


23 May 2011

Susan the urban fox and more hidden London

There's a lot to see along London's South Bank at the moment,including Susan the wonderful urban fox! Also this week I got to visit another of London's hidden gems - the Guildhall Art Gallery which hides a roman amphitheatre in its basement.

In 1951, Britain was trying to recover from the Second World War, London was still full of bomb sites and food rationing was still in place. So what did they do? Set up a huge festival on the South Bank and built a vision of the future which regenerated the South Bank and lifted the mood of London. 60 years on we have a summer of events to celebrate the original festival which is huge fun. The summer theme is played out by having a whole set of beach huts with things to explore inside, a beach for kids to play in and boat on a beach, an albatross which is in fact an RSPB marketing ploy and an Indian beach restaurant thanks to the fine folks at Dishoom (great Indian cafe food). A museum shows films of 1951 with all the visitors having a great day out and as I took my mum, who was actually there in 1951, we watched them in the hope of seeing her in one but sadly no. Models of the site showed the amazing ambition and vision of the time. Somewhat left field is Susan the urban fox sitting above the Hayward Gallery, a giant fox made of straw - fabulous but I have no idea why she is there, tho' that doesn't matter at all!

Photos: the bunting from the Festival Hall; the beach huts; the Dishoom beach restaurant:the giant albatross; the boat and the beach; a retro ice cream van; and, last but not least the wonderful Susan!

Where is there an art gallery with a Roman amphitheatre in the basement? The not so well known Guildhall Gallery is a secret gem. Located right to the glorious Guildhall which was built between 1411 and 1440. The gallery itself was burned down in 1941 during a bombing raid but finally returned 1999 and even better news is that it has just decided to let visitors in free which is a great step forward. It houses a range of interesting work including many pictures showing London's history and a piece by Copley which is one of the largest oil paintings in the country. However the amazing sight in the basement is the remains of a roman amphitheatre where you can see walls, wood and the shape of the ancient building. They have great lighting and have a panel showing the areas it would have covered and a wall display of the walls of the former building. Outside you can see line (just visible in the first photo) which is the outline of the amphitheatre which stood here from AD70. Well worth a visit and the photos hopefully give you an idea of the gallery exterior, the gallery interior, the projection of the amphitheatre, a plan of the site and the remains of walls and wooden structures Looking forward to next week in London with a lunch and a chance to explore the newly refurbished St Pancras building.

Bye for now,

17 May 2011

Unusual London: narrow boats, rail bands and moonwalks.

This week's blog brings some of the more unusual things you can enjoy in London: a Sunday canal wine tasting; an unusual station concert and a most unusual all night walk by women in bras - and some men too!

First we head to Camden for a wine tasting canal cruise. Run by a small independent wine shop and deli in Ealing, called Harrison's, I was not sure what to expect but something called 'Beaujolais Cru Cruise' sounded worth a go. We boarded our canal narrow boat and found a warm welcome from the Harrison's staff and the sight of loads of wine bottles and cheese and snacks laid out for us. Starting with a glass of sparkling red (yes!) we moved through whites, rose's and reds. You can help yourself to as much or as little of each wine as you like and refill as many times as you want to and can manage. The ticket was £30 for all your wine and wonderful cheeses, pates, saucissons and breads and even Beaujolais region's own pork scratchings!
Our route went from Camden Lock along the Regents Canal, past London Zoo, through Little Venice to Paddington Basin and back. It was a really enjoyable 4 hours on a wonderful sunny afternoon with a chance to get out at Paddington Basin to have a short wander around. We went with our own gang but also got chatting to lots of other folk on the trip so it was really sociable too and I even bumped into some old colleagues.
Photos are: the My Fair Lady; the first sighting of the wine challenge and these are just the reds!; our first lock; close encounters of the narrow boat kind; greenery en route; Paddington Basin; Little Venice; and, the tunnels - short and long with the light at the end.

I was passing through Paddington Station on a Friday evening and despite my hurry, had to stop and enjoy the playing of an amazing band. It seems they play between 7.30 and 9pm every Friday and have been there for years but I'd never heard of them! Going under the name of The Great Western Paddington Railway Band they are in the great world tradition of rail bands and are definitely worth not just stopping to see but going especially to see these dedicated, quality musicians!

My final unusual sight in London this week was the Moonwalk - a half or full marathon walk for breast cancer charities. Mostly women but also some men take to the streets of London and walk through the night to raise money for these charity and mostly are wearing bras and very little else on their tops! It was a really chilly night and I was volunteering by helping walkers cross the very busy traffic lights on Hyde Park corner. The traffic rushes past all night and we needed to make sure that walkers got across safely. I was wearing the unusual combination of tons of clothes to keep warm and a high vis jacket and hat so here's a photo of yours truly in full gear. Millions of pounds are raised by the brave and hardy walkers and I was pleased to do what I could to help cheer them along and keep them safe.

Who knows if next week will be as 'unusual'? Let's see...

Bye for now,


This week's blog brings you an unusual Sunday afternoon - cruising the canals of London while busy doing a wine tasting! And some unusual music at a mainline railway station as well as an all night charity walk by women (and some men!) in bras. Only in London I reckon.

11 May 2011

Gin and good chat!

This week, following the excitement of the Royal Wedding, we had to find new amusements - never a problem in London! Two unusual fun things this week were an invitation to a gin tasting and the wonderful 5x15.

I was invited to the InterContinental Hotel on Park Lane for a gin tasting session and was a little concerned as I am normally a vodka drinker and not so taken with the gin. That's before I met Stefano, their wonderful barman who expertly and with great charm talked me through and converted me to the wonders of gin. He is a master of gin and knows the history of the drink in amazing depth. I was keen to try Sipsmiths, the only gin distiller to set up in London, the home of gin, in 189 years and Stefano mixed their fine gin with basil, as the main ingredient, to make the wonderful Prudence and I also tried the Old Time Tipple and Poor Man's Punch, which was quite ambitious! Other great names on their cocktail list are the Tuppence Duty and Mother's Ruin all reflecting the history and myths surrounding this famous drink. They use a wide range of gin brands and mix them up to bring out the 'botanicals' in the gin as well as adding some fabulous dry ice.

The Arch bar at the InterContinental, which overlooks Wellington Arch, holds a daily gin hour (5.30-6.30) if you want to dive into the world of this up and coming spirit, or should I say, a spirit reclaiming its place at the bar. The photos show: the lobby at the Intercontinental; the Prudence; the wonderful barmen; the view out to Wellington Arch; the dry ice at work; and, a nice cup of tea (also known as Poor Man's Punch)!

5x15 is a brilliant concept bringing us an evening of 5 speakers each allotted 15 minutes in which to regale us with tales of their lives and passions. There is a timekeeper who will not let them go over - well not too far over! Last week we were in for a treat and the evening kicked off with an introduction by Rosie Boycott, one of the founders. Our line up was: Mick Hucknall; Anna Pavord; Hugo Vickers; Melvyn Bragg; and, John Bird. Mick talked about his early musical experiences seeing punk bands for the first time and how this led him to set up Simply Red. Anna talked about how she came to gardening and how it has been at the centre of her life. Hugo Vickers told us about the Duchess of Windsor's sad later years. Melvyn gave his impassioned case for the King James Bible and John Bird inspired us about the Big Issue. Look out for these evenings - this one was at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill - as it's a great format and gives you entertainment and food for thought with 5 different great speakers each time. Photos of 3 of our speakers (Melvyn, Mick and John with the Big Issue) and Rosie:

It was a cultural week in Notting Hill as we also went to the Print Room, a local theatre set in a converted 1950s warehouse. They were staging Tennesse Williams' Kingdom of the Earth, a 3 hander exploring many of Willliams' favourite themes set in the deep south of America on a night of rising flood waters. It is a small theatre which has a imaginative approach to stage setting and this time we had most of the stage covered in a mound of earth which the actors had to climb up and across during the action. It was different and effective but rather hard to describe - you'll just have to go! A trip to the bar opposite is part of the experience as the cast also go there for their post performance drinks so you can see them out of costume and have a chat.

Next week is shaping up really well already... so bye for now.


4 May 2011

When London caught Royal Wedding fever!

This was the week when London caught Royal Wedding fever and I'm going to show you just how much we were taken over by it! The weather was beautiful, London looked amazing and we really got into the party spirit.

The first set of photos show you the streets and shops all decked out in bunting and flags. You can see Notting Hill streets, street stall,, even Ann Summers getting covered (just) in the flag, and the most over the top of them all - Regent Street - winning the prize for the most possible flags in one street award!

Finally the day of the wedding arrived. You had to get up in the middle of the night and ideally camp out for several days to get a spot on the route itself and I decided not to try this as being rather short of stature I'd probably not see very much . I was offered an exclusive ride on the London Eye to see the procession to the church so here's a photo of the royal car passing Big Ben and a shot of the Mall as it looked the day before the big moment. From the Eye we walked through to Trafalgar Square to see the service on the giant screen where it was absolutely packed with people trying to catch a glimpse and be part of the party.
The next party was Hyde Park where, surrounded by thousands of Londoners and visitors, we saw the balcony moment, the WW2 fly past and then the band struck up and there was dancing and flag waving everywhere! Dressing up as well of course with knights and lots of brides. And finally the street party back in Notting Hill. What a day!
Good job we had a long weekend to recover!