24 September 2013

How much can you squeeze into a day and a half in London?

As you'll know from my bio I offer private tours of London for small groups and they all want to see loads of stuff in London without feeling like they have been rushed from one place to the next. So, I though I would share with you my most recent tour which lasted a day and a half so you can see just how much you can pack in without exhausting yourself!

My guests were staying in Earl's Court so on day one we set off from there by tube to St Paul's Cathedral which is an amazing church although I can never decide which is my favourite, here or Westminster Abbey. On the way we saw the blue trees, one of London's temporary art moments which we kept bumping into during our travels.  My guests were an energetic pair and wanted to climb to the very top so 365 feet later we emerged onto the very small platform of the Golden Gallery and enjoyed the view. We also loved seeing the display of donkeys in the cathedral - a visual art exhibition of 25 life sized differently decorated donkeys called Caravan 2013 highlighting interfaith co-operation. St Paul's is an enduring symbol of London and the blue trees and donkeys show how there is always something new to see even when you think you know a place!

View from the top of St Paul's
Bright blue trees

Painted donkeys

We strolled over the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern and explored a couple of the permanent collections, catching some Rothkos and even a Monet before a much needed coffee with a view back over the Millennium Bridge.  The Turbine Hall is closed as the Tate builds a massive extension so it's not as impressive as usual as I love the grand entrance into that massive space but it's definitely still worth a visit. Outside the Tate is another temporary art installation, the Endless Stair, a wooden structure based on Escher's work. It's fun to run up and down the stairs and take photos from all angles!

A walk along the south bank of the Thames gives you a chance to enjoy part of the Thames Path, voted second in a poll of great city walks by Lonely Planet readers, so that's a major endorsement. Our destination was the London Eye for a 35 minute ride of changing views and perspectives. It's such a smooth operation as you get on and off without it missing a beat and my guests certainly thought it was worth the ride.

A stroll over Westminster Bridge gives great photo opportunities of Big Ben and from there we had a good look at the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey and I went through some of the stories associated with both buildings including setting the record straight on what exactly is Big Ben. Everything looks so much more impressive and huge close up so it's always walking right up to these historic sights. 

Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
 We reckoned that was enough for one day, as the lights were coming up to display Big Ben beautifully, so we headed back to Earl's Court for a  meal and a rest! 

Day two saw an early start to catch the 9.30 Thames Clipper boat from Embankment to the Tower of London. Passing the sights we had seen from the bank yesterday, we saw these from a different angle and sailed beyond, passing close up to HMS Belfast with its huge guns.  It's best to arrive at the Tower by boat, just as people have for millennia, especially those entering through Traitors Gate which always gives me a bit of a shiver as once in you'd not be coming out again - alive!  We were lucky enough to watch a Tower Bridge lift from our vantage point on the massive defensive walls by the medieval palace. Some days there are several lifts but some days none at all so I was very pleased to show my guests another of London's iconic sights.  Our lunch stop was the Dickens Inn where they serve a decent fish and chips among the boats in St Katherine's Docks.

The Tower of London from way up high

Tower Bridge lifts to let a sailing barge through
We hopped on the tube to Green Park to take through the greenery past many folk enjoying a rest on the deck chairs but we were on our way to our timed entry tickets for Buckingham Palace so no sitting for us. When the Queen goes on her summer holidays to Scotland, she allows her subjects, and other visitors, to have a look round the incredibly grand state rooms and galleries of fine paintings.  Each year there is a special exhibition and this year it is, of course, a celebration of the coronation which took place 60 years ago in 2013. As we'd visited the Crown Jewels in the Tower of London, we could join up some of the dots having seen the coronation crown and film of the event itself. In the palace they have her coronation dresses and robes and the crown wore as she travelled to Westminster Abbey,  a beautiful sparkly piece which you can see on the Queen's head on every UK stamp, though I have to admit I'd not noticed it before I went to this exhibition.....

Beautiful coronation robes

Sparkling crown
 A well deserved coffee was on offer at the cafe in the Buckingham Palace gardens where they dust the cappuccino with a chocolate crown and decorate the cakes with chocolate crowns - nice touch!  The exit is via the excellent shop and the extensive gardens. 

Fancy cakes and coffee at the Buckingham Palace cafe

To complete the London Transport experience for my guests, we grabbed ourselves a trip on a red double decker bus along Piccadilly, past the Ritz and along Pall Mall before hopping off to enjoy a wander through St James's Park and Horse Guards Parade. There is always something happening on the streets of London and we were not disappointed as we bumped into the Round Britain Tour Cycle and saw one group whizz past us at speed while trying to grab their drinks!

Tour of Britain

A short walk up Whitehall took us to Trafalgar Square to see Nelson's Column - I'd told my guests all about him when we saw his grave in the crypt of St Paul's - and to climb on the lions for the essential photo. We enjoyed the temporary art work on the fourth plinth which is a massive blue cockerel, the same blue as the St Paul's trees strangely enough. We had just enough energy to pop into the National Gallery to see the impressionist rooms and marvel at the exquisite work by Van Gogh, Monet, and Degas.

The brilliant blue cockerel

As Covent Garden with its plentiful bars and restaurants was just next door we headed up to the balcony bar at the Brasserie Blanc for a well earned glass of wine (or 2!) and a snack as the sun went down.   

Phew - I must admit it was tiring but we saw so much and didn't have to rush around to fit it all in. My guests were full of energy and enthusiasm and really enjoyed their experience of London and the opportunity to some of the top sights that it has to offer with their own private tour from It's Your London.

What would be your favourite day and a half in London?

Bye for now,

10 September 2013

London's amazing hidden treasures

London has some of the most famous sights in the world from the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, to Buckingham Palace, Westminster Cathedral and St Paul's Cathedral. However, there are hundreds of less well known, hidden treasures in London so this blog starts an occasional series which will bring these gems to you. 

This week I'm featuring:  The Museum of Brands, Dalston House and 19 Princelet Street.

The Museum of Brands may not be the most exciting name but it is a treasure trove of memorabilia. It has grown from one man's passion for collecting to a museum with 12,000 original items housed in a Notting Hill mews. You follow a chronological path through the decades of consumer culture from the 1890s to the point where every visitor will exclaim 'I don't believe it - I had one of those'!  

The cabinets are arranged by decade so it's a bit of a history lesson as well as chance to see hundreds of brands, the ones that have come and gone and the ones that have stood the test of time with only a few changes.They have a fun shop where you can take home all kinds of retro souvenirs.  I must admit to having taken a few sneaky photos so here's are a few - through glass cabinets unfortunately!

Some recognisable tin brands

Disney have always been good as film/toy tie ins

Familiar names, different look


Memorabilia mugs started a long time ago...

Charles and Di stuff - doesn't she look grumpy on the tea towel!

Showing how packaging subtly changes over the years....

 Some hidden treasures are short lived and Dalston House is one of those which is sadly now closed but was so amazing it's worth a mention and shows the rich fun to be had in London!   This art installation was by Leandro Erlich, an Argentinian artist famous for his 3-D visual illusions. This work was the front of a Victorian house, a bit like a theatre set,  with windows and window sills, built on the ground with a huge curved mirror overhead.  Visitors crawled all over the horizontal house and then saw, up in the mirror, a reflection which looked like they were hanging off the windows - amazing and really hard to describe so here are some photos of yours truly, and others, in action:

Laying at ground level - mirror to the left

Laying in the foreground - mirror in background

3 friends hanging on
There's a toddler being hung from the door! Or not....

My last hidden treasure for today is a very important building in Spitalfiels - 19 Princelet Street. This historic house is a time capsule which takes you through 4 centuries through the fabric of the building.  It is rarely open and I was lucky enough to have a guided tour by the curator and her dedicated band of volunteers who speak with such passion that you get swept along with it all. They put their energies into the preservation of this fragile grade 11 listed building but have very little funding so the building defined as being 'at risk' and is shored up with areas inaccessible because of the danger.

19 Princelet Street
 Behind its shabby front door you enter a lost world from 1719, when it was first built, through the changes the building has undergone from its first residents who were Huguenot silk weavers escaping persecution in France, through Irish families to the Jewish residents who moved in and built a synagogue in the back garden in 1869! In its time it was a haven for Jews escaping the Nazis and was used as a place of worship until the 1960s.

It is Europe's first Museum of Diversity and Immigration and traces the journeys and experiences of those who have come to this area over the centuries from many lands and in different circumstances. You are encouraged to quietly immerse yourself into the lives of the previous occupants and other immigrants.  

No photos are allowed inside but you can read more about this amazing places here -19 Princelet Street

More hidden gems in a few weeks but next week I'll be bringing you the Mayor's Thames Festival....

Bye for now

5 September 2013

3 more great London bars!

Did you see my recent blog on '3 of the best rooftop bars in London'? Check it out here if not. It struck me while writing that post that London has so many other great bars you need to know about, so I'll be featuring them now and again in my blog. This week I'm taking you to a couple more rooftop ones with great view and my favourite old pub.

The Vista Bar is perched on top of the Trafalgar Hotel on Trafalgar Square and has a really great view right down into this famous square.  You can check out the new art work on the 4th Plinth or listen into the live streamed opera from the Royal Opera House or just chill out with a cocktail or too. They have pretty strong heaters so even on a chilly evening it's still ok to drink outside.  
What a view of Trafalgar Square

Roof tops through to the London Eye

Roof tops through to Houses of Parliament

Up close to the top of Nelson's column!

I love going to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, on a small alleyway off Fleet Street, as it feels so old and untouched. The sign outside tells us clearly it was 'rebuilt in 1667' as the previous building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London that devastated London the year before. The site has been the home to a pub since 1538. Charles Dickens was a frequent visitor and drinker  and there are claims that Dr Johnson was too and although he lived very close by, we have no real proof of that. Inside the is a wonderful small, dark room which is very atmospheric, especially when the fire is lit in the grate. Downstairs is more spacious with vast cellars thought to date from the 13th century and there is a dining room I'd love to try out sometime.

And still standing...

Down a little alleyway of Fleet Street

Atmospheric interior

The Sky Lounge at the DoubleTree Hilton near the Tower of London has a huge outdoor terraceYou are right up close to the new high rise buildings going up in the City of London - the 'walkie talkie' and the 'cheese grater' - we do love giving names to new buildings! If you are interested in regeneration and  new buildings there are enough cranes to keep you very happy! You are also treated to great views across to some of the more familiar London landmarks such as Tower Bridge and the Tower of London.  When night falls, the views are even better as the historic sights leap out of the night sky.

Outdoor terrace nestling in front of the Walkie Talkie

Historic London

River Thames and City Hall

Regeneration and cranes....
Magical night views
So many great bars, so little time - still I do my best!  I'll be taking you to more over the next few months so keep an eye on this blog but there's lots going on in London this autumn so the blog will not just be bar based....

Bye for now


* In case you are wondering -  no financial inducements were offered for this post!