30 October 2012

Enjoying autumn in London

As the summer disappears - and what a summer it's been from the celebrations of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee to the success of the Olympics and Paralympics - we are enjoying what autumn brings before winter sets in. So, what's going on in London?

London is busy any time to year and autumn is no exception so here just a few highlights from my diary in the last 2 weeks. 

London Film Festival is in its 56th year and seems to get bigger every time. This year's was full of Tim Burton's Frankenweenie which opened the festival and the Rolling Stones who turned up in force for the premiere of their documentary Crossfire Hurricane ahead of their upcoming sell out concerts in London. The best film winner was however a French film called Rust and Bone, a poetic love story.   I was passing Leicester Square on the night of the Stones opening so here are a few photos to give you an idea of the excitable crowd, the paparazzi and the premiere atmosphere.  Colin Firth arrived as I did and the place erupted with shouts, flash cameras and oohs and aahs! He stopped and chatted to the crowd as well as the press, what a nice man.

Leicester Square Odeon ready for a big night

The lights and the anticipation

This is what happened when Colin Firth arrived!
Continuing the theme of big excitable crowds, the French gathered in London when Johnny Halliday came to town for his first concert in the UK despite his 69 years. He's very much a French thing and the Albert Hall was turned into a French language zone for the night, no one even bothering to ask the way to the toilets in English!  The crowd were adoring and knew every word he sang, desperate to enjoy every moment of the 2 hour show.  We were swept away with the show which was big, loud and hugely good fun. 

Would you believe this is the Royal Albert Hall?

Johnny Halliday - still rocking

Autumn is a great time of year to explore London's wonderful parks and enjoy days out to the countryside near to the capital. One of my favourite parks is Hyde Park, an immense open space in the centre of London well used by locals and visitors alike. It is full of trees which give us lovely autumnal colours -  not quite like the American fall but pretty nonetheless. If you want to get out of town you can take short trips out to the small towns that gather along the banks of the upstream river Thames. At Cookham, just a 45 minute drive from London, you can enjoy delightful autumnal views and even a herd of cows joined in when I was there this weekend. 

The Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park

Hyde Park's trees

Autumn light at Cookham

Beautiful countryside just 45 mins from London
There you have just a sneaky peek at London's autumn and watch out for more next week. 

Bye for now,


18 October 2012

Days out from London.

I do love London but sometimes it is great to take a day out as there is so much to see in the surrounding towns and countryside. So my blog will bring you days out from time to time. One of my favourite things to do is to visit a National Trust property where you can get a good dose of history and beauty, calmness in the gardens, retail therapy in their shop and tasty cooking in their tea rooms.

This week I went to The Vyne which is about an hour's drive from central London or 45 minutes by train to Basingstoke and a short cab ride. It's a fine country house with extensive grounds so we enjoyed exploring the house and taking a decent walk on the woodland trail. 

The house is 16th century, built for Henry V111's Chamberlain Lord Sandys so the origins of the house are Tudor although many changes and additions were made by subsequent owners. The imposing front opens out onto lawns leading to a tranquil lake and is missing the two Tudor side wings that used to lead down to the water but were lost when the house was bought by the the Chute family in 1653 after the Civil War. The house remained in the Chute family right through until 1956 when it was left to the National Trust. 

Imposing portico with lawns down to the lake

The house has many rooms which date from the Tudor times when Henry V111 used to visit with two of his wives but not at the same time of course! Elizabeth 1st was also a visitor so it has very royal connections. It's amazing to tread the floors that they trod and see the wooden panelled rooms they lived in so many centuries ago. 

You may be wondering why it is called The Vyne and they story is that in the time of Emperor Probus AD 276-282, the Romans first brought vines to England and it was here at the site of current Vyne that the first ones were planted. 

The furniture and artefacts are from a later period than the Tudor era and include a small cabinet with a ring in it, known as  the Vyne Ring which dates from Roman times and has an inscription on it. The ring is supposed have a curse and you would think no more of it except that JRR Tolkein worked as an adviser on the archaeological dig so knew about the ring - perhaps this got him thinking!

The rear of the house is also an entrance as they changed them over once a road was built and the carriages would make their way with their guest more easily to this side of the house.
The rear, now the front of the house!

Inside the house you get a real feel of a different era and for those of you who watch Downton Abbey on the TV or are fans of period drama, these bells tell the story of how life was very much split between 'upstairs' ringing for service and 'downstairs' rushing to oblige!

The extensive grounds are 13 acres so have plenty of space for short strolls or walks of several miles through old woodland and a chance to enjoy a bird hide giving views over a large area of wetland so don't forget your binoculars, as we did!  A 17th century summer house is part of the more formal gardens and you can even see the vines although I'm not sure how old they are, probably not dating from Roman times.....  They grow significant amounts of fruit and vegetables so the food served in the tea house is made from fresh, very local ingredients.

The summer house

Beautiful views in the grounds

The Vyne is well worth a visit for a day out from London and if you want to find out more have a look at the National Trust website.

Bye for now,

1 October 2012

Peeking behind the closed doors in London's Open House weekend

Once a year we get the chance to peek behind some normally closed doors, and some that normally charge entrance fees, when Open House weekend rolls around again. 

I've been enjoying these weekends for many years now and there is always somewhere  new to visit. There are so many places on offer it's a challenge to see how many you can get to and it's fun to see the other Open House fans, easily identified clutching their green guide books and a map of London. 
The trusty Open House guide book

This year we managed just 5 properties on the Saturday but were incredibly lucky with the sunny weather as the Sunday saw a massive storm sweep over the country and drench London.  The highlight was undoubtedly the Royal Courts of Justice due to the grand scale of the building inside and outside and the stories about what happens in the courts themselves.Built in 1870 in unmistakable Victorian Gothic style it is a huge building and full of interest. Once through the security screening we could wander all around the building and a few of the actual courts were open for visiting (but not for photographing). In the Lord Chief Justice's Court we were treated to a brilliant talk by one of the top Ushers and the Tipstaff about their work and the work of the Courts. It was fascinating, full of history and information about how the courts work today and their position in our legal system and how many common phrases came into being such as 'called to the bar' and 'taking silk'. The Tipstaff was in full elaborate uniform and described his ceremonial role but also his work in child abduction overseas cases, merging the traditional and the modern responsibilities.  The seriousness of this court was highlighted by the very solid looking bars on the dock!

Magnificent main hall, Royal Courts of Justice

We were allowed access to the cells and hopefully that will be my only visit especially as we made the daunting walk from the cells to the Police vans waiting outside to take prisoners in locked units away to prison.  It made me shudder and I was pleased to be back in the main building and outside in my freedom!
Hope you never have to enter the cells!
Imposing exterior of the Royal Courts of Justice

On our busy day we also visited Puskin House, Dr Johnson's House, the chapel in King's College, the Roman Bath and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.    

The College Chapel was designed by George Gilbert Scott who was given the job when the college decided their previous chapel was not worthy of their status! Recent refurbishments have revealed the decoration behind the whitewash that covered walls and pillars after the Second World War and new wonderful stained glass windows replace the plain glass put in after the originals were destroyed by bombing. The glass looks traditional in content but has great nods to the present day and the various schools of the college as they feature a DNA helix, a woman (more radical than it sounds!), a lawyers wig and scientific instruments.  

The Roman Bath is neither Roman nor built as a Bath! It seems it was originally a cistern built in 1620 to feed a fountain in nearby Somerset House and is filled by a cold stream. It fell into disrepair and became part of a public bath in 1776 and was in use as a cold plunge bath until the end of the 19th century. The 'Roman' description may well have been an advertising gimmick - so nothing new there!  It is down a hidden side alley and is now part of the National Trust so if you pick the right day members can pop their heads in but no bathing allowed now.....

The 'Roman Bath' 

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine is housed in a fabulous art deco building in an area of wonderful art deco public buildings which includes the impressive Senate House.Opened in 1929 it has all the angles and geometry you would associate with art deco style and although the exterior is unchanged, expansion has required them to build a new wing within a glass atrium which blends in really well. In these grand surroundings they are world leaders in research and the fight against killing diseases. The school's founder, Sir Patrick Manson, made the first link between mosquito bites and malaria and one of its teaching staff, Dame Claire Bertschinger  was interviewed by Michael Buerk on the Ethiopian famine which led to the setting up of Live Aid - so LSHTM has some pretty important events to its name.
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Senate House
Dr Johnson's House is a rare surviving city dwelling dating from the end of the 17th century, although the upper floor and roof were destroyed by bombing in the Second World War. It is amazing that the house survived at all given the amount of wood in the house but it is great that it is still here to visit. The house has some very interesting architectural features and I especially liked the swing doors enable one large room to be divided into three small ones - very practical and good use of space which is always of interest to a city dweller like me!  They have a copy of Dr Johnson's famous dictionary, compiled in this house over the course of 9 years,  6 more than he originally claimed he needed! The house was very busy so photos were not easy to take - have a look at their website instead: http://www.drjohnsonshouse.org/

More from London very soon.

Bye for now